Posts Tagged ‘McDonald’s’

Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee case

Thirteen courts have reported opinions looking at product-liability/failure-to-warn claims alleging that coffee was “unreasonably dangerous” and the provider was thus liable when the plaintiff spilled coffee on him- or herself. Twelve courts correctly threw the case out. Another trial court in New Mexico, however, didn’t, and became a national icon when the jury claimed that Stella Liebeck deserved $2.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages because McDonald’s dared to sell the 79-year-old hot 170-degree coffee.

The case is ludicrous on its face, as a matter of law and as a matter of common sense. Eleven years later, this should be beyond debate, yet somehow, it keeps coming up in the blogs, and we keep having to refute it. (Dec. 10, 2003, Aug. 3, 2004, Aug. 4, 2004).

Amazingly, rather than argue that the tort system shouldn’t be judged by the occasional outlier, the litigation lobby has succeeded in persuading some in the media and on the left that the Liebeck case is actually an aspirational result for the tort system, and, not only that, but that anyone who says otherwise is just a foolish right-winger buying into “urban legends” (Aug. 14, Aug. 16, and links therein). Even the Mikkelsons at have made the mistake of buying into the trial lawyer hype, calling the case “perfectly legitimate” and effectively classifying the common-sense understanding of the case as an urban legend.

But the real urban legend has to be that the case has any legitimacy. Worse, this urban legend is being taught to a generation of law students by professors like Jonathan Turley and Michael McCann. Now, any peripheral mention of the McDonald’s coffee case provokes a gigantic backlash from the left, who, while congratulating themselves on their seeing past the common-sense view of the case and being above urban legends, spread a number of urban legends of their own about the case. Witness the 200-plus comment outpouring at Kevin Drum’s Political Animal blog. This post provides a partial rebuttal to some of the things said in that thread, and will hopefully serve as a FAQ in the future.

Read On…

McDonald’s coffee revisited, August 2005 edition

One of the great urban legends perpetuated by the trial bar is that the ludicrous McDonald’s coffee case (Dec. 10, 2003; Aug. 3, 2004; Aug. 4, 2004, etc.) was somehow worthwhile because McDonald’s “lowered the temperature of its coffee” after it lost the case over Stella Liebeck’s burns. This claim is repeated by hundreds and perhaps thousands of web pages, and at least one tort-law casebook used in law schools.

Not so. Restaurants, much to the relief of consumers, continue to serve coffee hotter than the 140 degrees Stella Liebeck’s attorney thought should be the maximum limit. And, one time in several million, a customer is burnt by the coffee, and some fraction of those result in lawsuits. Latest examples: Rachel Wehrenberg of Florida is suing William F. Ganshirt and McDonald’s for second-degree burns suffered by her daughter when Ganshirt spilled his coffee on six-year-old Victoria’s back after the two collided; and Russian Olga Kuznetsova is suing McDonald’s for second-degree burns she suffered when she spilled coffee on herself while trying to exit the restaurant. The Naples News uncritically repeats attorney Debi Chalik’s false assertion that “industry standard” is “140 degrees.” The Russian lawsuit is over whether the restaurant’s door caused the spill; there does not appear to be a claim that the coffee was unreasonably hot just because it caused burns. Interestingly, there appear to be delays in the Russian case because the expert witness was found to have had contact with the plaintiff’s attorney, a common practice here that is an apparent nyet-nyet in Russia. (Kristen Zambo, “Mother sues McDonald’s claiming coffee burned daughter”, Bonita Daily News, Aug. 6; “Russian woman claims million for a cup of McDonald’s coffee”, Pravda (English), Aug. 9; Andrey Kolesnikov, “Not Fraud, Just Clumsiness”, Kommersant, Jul. 28).

McDonald’s settles trans fat claim

The fast-food chain has agreed to settle charges arising from its having missed a self-announced deadline for reducing the use of trans fats in its cooking oil. It will pay $7 million to the American Heart Association for an educational campaign, $1.5 million to publicize its future progress in the quest for better fats, and unspecified attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs. The “chain said it had issued a news release in February 2003 saying its plans had been delayed,” but Stephen Joseph, a San Francisco attorney who runs a pressure group called, sued contending that the restaurant chain did not adequately publicize the setback. (Joe Garofali, “$7 million for suit on trans fats”, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 12). For attorney Joseph’s earlier suit demanding unsuccessfully that the sale of Oreo cookies to kids be banned, see May 13, 2003.

Foodmakers say the use of trans fats is the only practicable way left to avoid the prospect of limp and off-flavored French fries and donuts, in part because earlier campaigns succeeded in demonizing butter, animal and tropical fats, though some of those fats are now considered less harmful than their replacements. Many nutritionists

had made their careers telling people to eat margarine instead of butter,” said Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of a handful of medical researchers who have led the fight against trans fat. “When I was a physician in the 1980’s, that’s what I was telling people to do and unfortunately we were often sending them to their graves prematurely.”

That certainly inspires confidence in the idea of giving nutritionists access to the coercive machinery of government to enforce their recommendations, doesn’t it? (Kim Severson and Melanie Warner, “Fat Substitute Is Pushed Out of the Kitchen”, New York Times, Feb. 13).

Muscovite files McDonald’s coffee-spill case

“The fashion to sue fast food enterprises has reached Russia. Thirty-seven-year-old Muscovite Olga Kuznetsova claimed a 100,000 ruble ($3,500) compensation from McDonald’s for the burn that a spilled cup of coffee had left on her body.” (Pravda, Nov. 15; Novosti, Nov. 12). For Ted’s take on the much-discussed Stella Liebeck case, see Dec. 10, 2003, Aug. 3, 2004, and Aug. 4, 2004.

Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s coffee revisited II

More discussion of the McDonald’s coffee case, the blogosphere discussion of it, and why it’s relevant today on our sister blog, Point of Law (Aug. 4).

One additional point merits discussion: “PG” of Blog de Novo (Aug. 3) makes the oft-heard argument that it was alright for Stella Liebeck to sue McDonald’s for millions because she first tried to settle for her medical expenses. I recently had an experience that shows why this thinking is fallacious.

Read On…

Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s coffee revisited

A sad example of how the Democratic party has become the political wing of the plaintiffs’ bar is a recent post in the Daily Kos defending John Edwards by lionizing the result in the infamous McDonald’s coffee case, where a jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.9 million for spilling a 49-cent coffee on herself. (Daily Kos, Aug. 1). Professor Bainbridge refutes (Aug. 1), with reference to our Dec. 10 entry. Blogger “Curmudgeonly Clerk” (Aug. 2) continues to insist that hot coffee is unreasonably dangerous, which sidesteps the question why our legislatures continue to permit it to be sold. Strangely, the Clerk is aware of and cites McMahon v. Bunn-O-Matic, a Seventh Circuit case that should’ve ended the coffee debates once and for all, but doesn’t reconcile that decision with his defense of the Liebeck case.

Meanwhile, Maxine Villegas’s sister spilled McDonald’s coffee on her, and she’s hired Liebeck’s lawyer to sue McDonald’s. (Matt Fleischer-Black, “One Lump or Two?”, American Lawyer, Jun. 4.) Though scheduled to go to trial last month, there hasn’t been additional press coverage.

Sparing parents the temptation?

In Ireland, an official health board has objected to the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in the County Clare town of Ennis, saying its products might make children fat. “Community dietitians” on the board have insisted that before the restaurant chain has its permit application approved it should “prepare an Environmental Impact Statement to determine what effect the restaurant will have on the health of children in the Ennis area.” (“Board opposes a McDonald’s for Ennis over health factors”, Irish Times, Feb. 3). Further reading on the slimness-through-legal-compulsion crusade: David Gratzer (Manhattan Institute), “Cadbury Replaces Cholera”, National Review Online, Feb. 12; Todd G. Buchholz, “Burgers, Fries, and Lawyers”, Policy Review, Feb.; Kelly Jane Torrence, “Food Fight”, Reason, Dec. 23.

McDonald’s coffee revisited

Professor Bernstein (also here) and the “Curmudgeonly Clerk” trade thoughts on the infamous McDonald’s coffee case ($2.9 million verdict for Ms. Stella Liebeck, who spilled a 49-cent coffee on herself), with the Curmudgeonly Clerk’s comments demonstrating how thoroughly the plaintiffs’ bar has infiltrated societal thinking.

The Clerk justifies the verdict on a couple of grounds: McDonald’s had 700 previous complaints; and Ms. Liebeck suffered horrific injuries.

To say that there were 700 previous complaints of burns (ranging from scalds to real injuries) from McDonald’s coffee begs the question. After all, 700 is just the numerator. What’s the denominator? The answer is in the tens of billions. A product that hurts one in twenty-four million people is not “unreasonably dangerous”, especially when the vast majority of the 700 incidents were not the sort of grievous injuries Ms. Liebeck had. (McDonald’s had settled previous cases, but the cases were incidents where the McDonald’s employees had spilled the coffee.) However, the jury took the 1-in-24 million statistic not as evidence that McDonald’s coffee was not dangerous, but as evidence that McDonald’s cared more about statistics than people — when in fact the statistic should have been used to throw the case out.

That Ms. Liebeck was surely serious hurt doesn’t change the underlying problem with the lawsuit: Ms. Liebeck was hurt because she spilled coffee on herself. If (as all fast-food restaurants do now) McDonald’s had the obvious statement “Coffee is hot and can burn you” on the cup (a juror later complained that McDonald’s warning was too small), would that have prevented her injuries? True: McDonald’s could have served luke-warm coffee or even iced coffee. But at the end of the day, the proximate cause of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries, as awful as they were, was Ms. Liebeck.

The argument for liability is that McDonald’s chose to serve its coffee hot and should have foreseen that people would burn themselves when they spilled coffee. But, here’s a question: the reason Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were so terrible was because she was wearing a sweatsuit that absorbed the hot liquid and held it close to her skin. Surely, clothing manufacturers can foresee that people will spill hot liquids on themselves. If Ms. Liebeck’s sweatpants had been made out of Gore-Tex or some other liquid-resistant material, she never would have been hurt. What’s the principle of tort law that holds McDonald’s liable, but not the clothing manufacturer?

Read On…