July 22, 2015
McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit: What really REALLY happened
By now all but the most oblivious among us have gotten the memo:
Stop using “the McDonald’s hot coffee spilling incident” as an example of a typically crazy, greedy frivolous lawsuit of the sort that has slowly eroded social cohesion in America.
And it IS true that the coffee WAS really, really hot.
However, there are some neat twists and turns, too, and one thing is those numbers and temperatures and science and stuff made no difference whatsoever:
Liebeck’s crew fired back that at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature around which McDonald’s serves its coffee at, it takes only about three seconds to produce third-degree burns, and that lowering the temperature to 160 degrees would be much safer, needing about 20 seconds to cause similar third degree burns. (It should be noted that the latter estimates presented by Liebeck’s team do not line up with data from the American Burn Association…)
Another witness for McDonald’s, engineer P. Robert Knaff, noted that the number of injuries was statistically insignificant when measured against the annual sale of billions of cups of coffee.
Though unequivocally true on all counts, being seemingly nonchalant about injuries to customers was really the heart of why McDonald’s lost this otherwise frivolous lawsuit, at least according to interviews with some of the jurors after the fact.
As juror Jerry Goens noted, before the case, he thought it somewhat silly and that he “wasn’t convinced as to why I needed to be there to settle a coffee spill.”
Over the course of the trial, however, the jurors’ opinions changed, not so much because of what happened to Liebeck or the circumstances of the specific case, but, as one of the jurors, Jack Elliot, noted, the seemingly “callous disregard for the safety of the people” that McDonald’s exhibited in the case. Another juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
The verdict and case actually kind of worked out for McDonald’s.
Public opinion over the matter almost wholly sided with McDonald’s, a rare thing for such “little guy vs. corporation” type cases.
And now the whole country, and beyond, was discussing and defending McDonald’s and noting the fact that McDonald’s was a place you could get a cheap, piping hot, cup of coffee.
So did anything change as a result of the verdict? Not really. One change that did happen was that McDonald’s and other companies began putting large warning labels on their hot beverages to warn consumers that, well, they’re hot.
They did not, however, seem to reduce the temperature of their coffee, nor have other coffee vendors, with the industry standard still typically being to brew coffee at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit and sell it around 180 degrees Fahrenheit or so, give or take ten degrees. It turns out, customers actually prefer many types of coffee hot…
As such, to avoid similar frivolous lawsuits as much as possible, the solution has largely been the development of better container designs to minimize the risk of spilling the scalding liquid in the first place.