Responses to comments on yesterday’s McDonald’s coffee posts

Several comments on yesterday’s post merit responses.

1. One commenter invokes the Ford Pinto case, which is interesting because that’s perhaps the most famous anti-reform urban legend of all. He mistakenly says that Ford’s problem there was undervaluing human life (though the figure in the memo merely repeated the NHTSA number), but, in reality, the plaintiffs sought and obtained punitive damages because Ford performed a cost-benefit calculation at all. Any manufacturer caught performing the cost-benefit calculation that the commenter believes reflects the tort system operating at its most efficient is going to be accused of “putting profits before people” and undervaluing human life, and is at severe risk of being hit with punitive damages unless the judge or jury is unusually economically literate.

2. I’m not saying the court should have thrown the case out because of the factual dispute. The jury made the wrong decision on the facts, but the judge made the wrong decision on the law: see McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic and the dozen or so cases throwing identical theories out.

3. I agree that it’s not enough to look solely at the costs of the tort system, and that one must look at the benefits also. I don’t oppose the tort system as a whole, but there are certainly problems with the tort system that can be improved to increase the benefits while decreasing the costs. The McDonald’s case illustrates several of these problems: (a) bogus expert testimony; (b) the distorting effect of punitive damages, especially when punitive damages in a products liability case is based on the defendants’ sales, rather than the defendants’ conduct; (c) the erosion of the concept of proximate cause from the tort system; and (d) the erosion of the concept of personal responsibility from the tort system; (e) the backwards-looking “failure to warn” cause of action; (f) the system’s unscientific rejection of concepts of statistical significance.

This would be bad enough if the case was simply an outlier, a case where bad luck, a bad judge, a bad jury, and defense mistakes combined to create a wrong result, but ATLA and law professors are holding up this case as a good result, and there’s a generation of law students who mistakenly think that this is what the tort system should aspire to.

4. I mentioned in the post; they appear to have taken down their original McDonald’s coffee page. I’ve changed the link from the main Snopes page to a different post discussing the “Stella Awards” (which we debunked August 27, 2001). There, repeats the claim that the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit was legitimate, and furthers the urban legend that there’s a sinister force behind the Stella Awards—a curious claim, given that the Mikkelsons’ experience with urban legends has surely taught them that no right-wing conspiracy is needed to result in the spreading of a good yarn that isn’t true. (See also Aug. 14.) In contrast, ATLA affirmatively promotes urban legends about the Ford Pinto and McDonald’s coffee case on their page.

5. Side note about an irony of the Ford Pinto case: the litigation was sold to the American public as a godsend because Pintos were so dangerous that their gas tanks killed a thousand or more. Gary Schwartz added up the numbers, and discovered that only 28 people died in Ford Pinto fuel-fed fires—a rate lower than many other small cars. ATLA shamelessly uses the new number to exclaim that current product manufacturing snafus are “worse than the infamous Ford Pinto,” which is, of course, infamous only because of the successful propaganda of the trial bar.

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