McDonald's Hot Coffee lawsuit: deliberate, corporatist urban legend

Remember the old lady who sued McDonald’s for millions because she burned herself by spilling hot coffee in her lap? It never happened.

@doctorow, please can you explain what you meant by “it never happened” ?


That’s only half the problem. What should the change be?

In this case, it seems the “solution” is a little warning that says something like “CAUTION: hot water is hot”. It’s printed on the paper cup full of near-boiling water, in order to warn the person who is in such a rush that they have put the paper cup of near-boiling water between their legs, in a moving car. Is that person going to read the warning? Of course not. But this is somehow the “solution” to the problem.

What should be the solution? Outlaw hot coffee? Legislate for cups that it is impossible to spill liquid from (presumably non-disposable, very expensive, hence economically non-viable, with the same result as outlawing hot coffee)? It is quite possible that some situations do not have solutions that will always work out.

In which case, if we just provide “incentive to change”, with no realistic direction for the change to go in, then we just get a meaningless change instead.

As Homer put it, “Because of me, they have a warning!”


Well, besides the very silly warning label, McDonalds also slightly reduced the temperature their coffee was held at, so that the result of a lapful of it wouldn’t necessarily be 3rd degree burns on a woman’s inner thighs and vagina. But as the old saying goes, you can’t legislate stupid. There’s a line where a company like McD’s will stop and say “we’ve done our due dilligence; anything else is just ridiculous.”

Hey everybody - you can just go and read the previous BB comment thread on this if you want to re-live the exact same arguments that everybody is getting into right now. :slight_smile:


Hey, if they get to re-post the same old crap, then we should be allowed to keep our opinions.


The difference is that @maggiek did a great job of responsibly reporting the story, while Cory decided to just declare that it “never happened”, baffling everyone who can read the facts in the linked article.


Sadly, that’s often (not always, but increasingly) how Cory rolls these days. Linkbaity headlines, misleading or just downright incorrect descriptions of the linked articles. You take the good with the bad, I guess.


Yeah, as a 10+ yr BB reader, it’s been sort of weird and worrisome to watch; his articles used to be the highlight of the site, but these days he’s sort of become the Harry Knowles of BoingBoing. His articles are nearly always clickbait bordering on trollbait, with headlines and lead-lines that make me wonder if he’s even reading what he’s posting about, but always seem to be written to provoke and annoy. And no matter how many readers call him on his rather bizarrely wrong editing, he never follows up, corrects, or defends them. Sad, I agree.


He’s famous and busy in other ways these days. I suspect BB is just a sort of rushed sideline job for him now.


Largely because the malpractice insurance rates are so high.

Of course this means the doctors have to bill more to the health insurance companies to cover their costs- which results in higher premiums.

So we end up having to raise the insurance rates because the insurance rates are too high.

For possibly the first time in my life, I feel like it’s not lawyers who are the problem.

My father in law suffered a massive heart attack a result of a doctor not running a standard test before a procedure. When he was treated for the heart attack the treating surgeons didn’t follow standard procedure and he suffered a massive stroke. He went from being a guy who was developing new branches of mathematics for flight simulation and serving as a NASA project manager for the computing systems in the shuttle program to losing his speech and motor functions. There were multiple overt blunders all the way along. The hospital admins actually told my wife’s family that they should sue for malpractice.

Luckily this was before tort reform in the state, so he got a settlement that let him carry on for the rest of his life with those massive setbacks caused by doctor error. If it had occurred after tort reform, he’d have been left with a far, far lower quality of life.

“Frivolous lawsuits” are able to be dealt with by the system. The judge always has discretion to lower judgments, and cases can be thrown out if they’re truly frivolous. Tort reform has these huge issues for me:

  1. It’s an attack on the 7th Amendment, and always sounds to me like someone is saying “I know better than the Bill of Rights, because sometimes I don’t like the way people exercise their rights.”

  2. It’s an attack on the independence of the judicial branch and the separation of powers of the Constitution.

  3. It’s an attack on those legitimately injured to try to punish those who aren’t. I hate laws that punish the innocent in the hopes that some guilty suffer.

  4. It’s an attempt to protect those with the most wealth and power in society from having to act responsibly, and let them act irresponsibly without recourse.

  5. Advocates tend to massively inflate projections of cost savings, and tend to be parties with their own personal investment in being freed from responsibility for their actions.


The change in this context should be baldly obvious: don’t make your coffee so hot that it causes 3rd degree burns, guys, it’s dangerous to give that to people, you need to tell them that they can’t put it in their laps, this is not like your tepid brew at home, this is some LETHAL SHIT, and you can’t just hand that out to folks in their cars like it’s nothing.

The company was giving someone something that could – and DID in this case – cause severe, traumatic injury. That’s not the kind of thing the state is generally nonplussed about selling to people. Hazardous materials require informed consent, at least.

Warnings help because they inform people of the danger they’re about to embark on, so it’s weak to dismiss them as “just a warning.” If I am going to be handling something that could cost me $20,000 in medical bills because I klutzed it up, I damn well want to know about it.


Your personal example is a huge fallacy to logic.
Your talking about a very specific example, possibly of bad care. Possibly a mistake made because of overworked nurses who have to run tests on 1,000 healthy patients before they find the 1 MI. Yes, in an ER they perform hundreds if not thousands of EKGS to find 1 STEMI. Crazy odds but they do it because its good care, not for legal reasons. (Hence they still do it in states with tort reform).

Lets go further and look at other examples.
Your saying thousands and thousands of people should be subject to harmful radiation in order to save the 1 in a zillion that have a real problem that the test might have missed anyway until further testing?
Because that is what CT scans do.
They also raise the cost of care immensely.
But just to be sure we should CT scan every single patient right? I mean its a routine test.
Oh wait no you didn’t mean that? Your specific example does not mean there is no problem.

Even in your case maybe the lawsuit isnt frivolous, there still should be a cap on the amount of money one can receive. Enough to be a strong deterrent to malpractice, but not one that bankrupts hospitals and raises the cost of health care for every other person in the country,

What about when a baby dies during birth, no one at fault sometimes, it happens. Lawsuit most of the time is settled because a Jury will base it on outcome not quality of care.

But sans context, that 700 people number is meaningless.

According to court documents, that 700 number comes from a period of 10 years, or about 70 cases a year.

MCD’s currently sells about 10 million cups of coffee a day. I don’t know the rate in the period in question, but even if it’s 1/2 of what it is today, that’s on average a burn for every 25 million cups of coffee sold.

Saying that MCD’s coffee is dangerous is the logical equivalent of saying that playing the lottery is the best way of making money.

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I’m not disagreeing with you at all. McDonald’s, frankly, did themselves no favors in court by first admitting that 700+ people had complained about burns from their coffee, and then dismissing it as “insignificant”, and defending the temperature of the coffee that had given an old lady 3rd degree burns as an “industry standard”. That’s the sort of corporate-speak that sounds heartless and callous to a jury and makes them want to give someone $2.7mm they didn’t even sue for.


Yea. The problem is that even if it is insignificant from a statistical point of very, from the human perspective – where we make meaning of our lives through the stories we tell ourselves – it seems very significant. (And I think navigating that divide will always be difficult: we are individuals, not numbers, but from the policy perspective – be it corporate or governmental – the numbers are the best thing we have. I’m a fan of evidence-based policy, so I think we have to “go by the numbers,” but there will always be a disconnect because ultimately we’re people, not numbers.)

I agree MCD’s did no favor to themselves in the courts, but that’s probably a bit of an understatement!

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The test he needed was actually a blood test, not a CAT scan or whatever you’re thinking of.

No, I didn’t say that at all.

No, that would be stupid, as well as irrelevant to his injury.

Since you apparently missed it, here’s what I actually said.

Also, having been in hospitals for various reasons over the years, I’ve always seen doctors warn about CT scans (since they entail a higher dose of radiation than most tests), and haven’t seen them used very often except in domains where they might actually show something helpful to a diagnosis, so your odd little bogeyman of the CT scan is just a baseless scare tactic.


I’m not legally minded, but I was a nurse for a decade. What I took away from this was the words “ICU” and “Skin Grafts” when I read about it. That signaled to me that this wasn’t a frivolous case. An elderly woman got sent to the ICU to have skin grafts. On her groin. . . Those are facts.

Anyone arguing in favor of McDonalds handing out coffee hot enough to melt your skin with 3rd degree burns, and a buyer beware policy, is bonkers. That’s an injury that is shockingly awful.


This. Most people base their estimation of how dangerous their coffee is on personal experience, i.e. the temperature of the coffee they get out of an ordinary coffee pot. McDonald’s coffee was regularly brewed at a much higher temperature for no good reason, even after a well-documented history of serious burns.

I’m still not sure where the demand for this super-heated coffee is supposedly coming from. I’ve never had a cup of joe right out of my home coffee pot and thought “this would be so much better if it was pressure-heated to the point where it could sear the living flesh from my bones.”


Consumer Reports has included as one of its criteria for good home coffee makers the ability to brew at 200F. Almost all other restaurants brew near this temperature. This is not McDonald’s selling molten lava in cups, this is a lady who had an accident.

According to the national weather service, your chances of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in a million ( That’s right, you are 24 times more likely to be struck by lightning then to be injured by McDonald’s coffee.

Obviously Doctorow’s linkbait article is correct in pointing out how evil and dastardly McDonald’s is. Now we just need to ban weather.