McDonald’s Coffee Lawsuit

McDonald's Coffee lawsuitThere is a ridiculous news story making the rounds about a man who lost his life’s savings while playing a carnival game and it brought to mind the McDonald’s spilled coffee lawsuit that many people consider the epitome of frivolous cases.

I don’t want to talk about the stupidity of the man who lost his money at the carnival, there seems to be a consensus on that and I’m not the sort to join in with the crowd. I do want to discuss the McDonald’s lawsuit because I think there are a lot of misconceptions about that case.

I’d like to discuss not only why it wasn’t nearly as frivolous as people think but also how it has made all our lives a little safer.

McDonald’s serves their coffee quite hot and for legitimate reasons. Coffee cools over time and with the introduction of cream and other sweeteners more quickly yet. In this case the woman spilled it on her pants and suffered third-degree burns over six percent of her body, spent eight days in the hospital, and required skin grafting. She originally sued for the cost of her hospital stay. McDonald’s refused and the case, after much wrangling, was eventually settled for something less than $600,000. The exact amount is unknown as a gag order remains in effect.

It turns out that coffee served that hot is pretty dangerous. There were many cases involving coffee induced burns prior to this incident and there continue to be some although at a lowered rate. Basically the situation presents a real problem. Coffee served cooler is not as appealing. Coffee served that hot is dangerous. What has the industry done to resolve this issue? They’ve made major improvements in coffee cups and lids. The idea being that if you spill the coffee it is almost certainly because you were handling it negligently.

This is an excellent outcome. We’re all safer. It’s a shame McDonald’s didn’t just pay the original medical damages and then move to improve the cups and lids but sometimes the hard lesson must be learned.

It’s easy to be angry at companies for failing to anticipate an issue that results in serious harm or death, and it’s likewise common to label people who file lawsuits over apparently silly issues as cranks.

I’m of the opinion that our judicial system, while imperfect, is truly excellent. Average people have a way to redress legitimate complaints and large entities can defend themselves. Are there warts in the system? Certainly. Do people take advantage of the system? No doubt. Does the system largely function? Absolutely.

Who knows, maybe the man who lost his money at the carnival may also end up helping us. In any case I suggest that the next time you get a chance; don’t tell a lawyer joke, thank a lawyer instead. They really do help us all.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water (it’s awesome, $2.99, what do you have to lose?)
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

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