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Lessons from the McDonalds Hot Coffee Law Suit

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The McDonalds Hot Coffee Lawsuit - What You Didn't Hear

Published May 6th, 2008


Probably at some point, you have heard of the woman who spilled hot coffee in her lap, and sued McDonald’s for millions. What you usually hear, is how this woman drove into the drive-thru at McDonald’s and bought hot coffee, that she then stuck between her legs. Because it was a Styrofoam cup with a slip on slid, the coffee spilled in her lap. Then you hear that that this lady was awarded nearly 3 million dollars because she burned her lap. Generally, most people tend to feel more sympathy for an individual, than they do for multi-billion dollar corporation. In this case some people side more with McDonald’s, reasoning that this woman doesn’t deserve much, if anything, afterall, McDonald’s did not spill the coffee, she did that herself, it was her poor judgement that led to the accident. They also think that 3 million is a ridiculous amount of money, for a coffee scald.

Perhaps, you are one of those people. We are always hearing of frivolous lawsuits and/or excessive judgement is lawsuits. Perhaps this angers you some, because you know that these things, cost us all money. Perhaps you believe that if you were in her shoes, you would not have brought this suit, but just admitted your own fault and move on, after you stopped screaming from the pain. McDonalds Hot Coffee Lawsuit

Those are easy positions to take, aren’t they? You may not have your facts strait however, or at least you may not have all of the facts. For example, this woman was not driving, she was a passenger in the car, and the car was not in motion. She was opening the lid to add cream and sugar, yes, the coffee was between her legs as she attempted to remove the lid. The lid was on tight enough (which is good, because you would not want the lid to come off if the cup overturned while driving) that she had to squeeze the cup with her legs to keep the cup from lifting, while she pulled the lid off, but, once the lid was off, the cup lost reinforcement, and the pressure from her legs squeezed cup out of round, and the coffee squirted up and out of the cup. In a moment, the coffee was absorbed into her sweatpants which kept the hot coffee in contact with her skin. The pain made her react instinctively and uncontrollably, spilling the rest of the coffee – you get the picture.

Now, this doesn’t make the spill the responsibility of McDonald’s, but it does transform the incident from one of a really foolish driver with hot coffee in her lap, to a mistake and accident that anyone of us might have made.

Now, what you also might not know, that this was not simply a painful burn. The burns she received were extensive. Six percent of her skin was third degree burns, with additional second and first degree burns. How did it get to such a large about of her body? Well, after the initial burns on her legs and groin, the coffee ran downhill to the car seat, where her buttocks were burned. Without getting too detailed, she was burned everywhere in between. She spent the next eight days in the hospital, having dead tissue removed and receiving skin grafts.

The woman sought $20,000 from McDonald’s, but McDonald’s refused. This is when she sought relief through a lawsuit. During the discovery portion of the trial, McDonald’s produced documents which showed that there had been at least 700 claims by people burned by McDonald’s coffee, in the ten years prior to this woman’s case. This shows that McDonald’s knew that it had a problem with the temperature of it’s coffee.

McDonald’s also provided information, to the effect that they keep their coffee on hold, at 185 degrees, plus or minus 5 degrees. This is substantially hotter that other establishments. Coffee at home, is usually served at 135 to 140 degrees. To give a perspective, most adults cannot make themselves, no matter how hard they try, hold their hand in water over 130 degree. Water at 105 degrees, is about the most people can tolerate in a hot tub, 95 to 100 still feeling quite hot. Eighty  degrees above that, is quite hot! Water at 180 degrees, can give you a third degree burn, in as little as two seconds.

There are other facts that you may not have heard, but I will skip most of them. Remember that three million dollars? Well 2.7 million of that was punitive damages. For those of you not familiar with how are civil court system works, punitive damages are not awarded to the plaintiff, because the plaintiff deserves or needs them. The are designed to punish the defendant (McDonald’s), so that they will have an incentive, to change their behavior, and stop serving coffee that unnecessarily burns 70 people every year. This amount, at the time, was the equivalent of two days worth of coffee sales for McDonald’s.

 Millions of Dollars  Damages, the amount awarded to the plaintiff as compensation, was awarded by the jury in the amount of $200,000, but it was reduced to $160,000, because the jury found that the plaintiff was 20% responsible. The punitive damages, were reduced by a judge, to $480,000, but the judge said that McDonald’s was reckless, callous, and willful. The parties entered into a secret settlement subsequently, so we do not know how much McDonald’s actually payed. I am guessing that it was less, that McDonald’s threatened to appeal the verdict and/or awards, and that the plaintiff might end up with nothing, so, a compromise was stuck. I do not know, this is just a guess.

O.K. What does all of this have to do with a Christian administrator’s blog?

I do not know if know the facts of the case that I presented about, change your opinion about it at all, that is not the point. But you can see, that someone might come to different conclusions, if they have all of the facts, or in some cases just admit that they do not know all of the facts, and suspend judgement until they do have the facts.

We, as Christians, have a lot of insecurity usually on the topic of judgement. Some of us think think that it means that we should not criticise others. It does not mean that. If you want, you can see my thoughts on judgement as a theological topic, you may, but that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about how quick we can be, to leap to false conclusions, when we do not have the facts. Sometimes we think we have the facts, but we do not know how much more to a story there is than is apparent. Sometimes, it is none of our business to know all of the facts, and in such cases, might we want to consider suspending our opinions out of recognizing our own ignorance? We often have too much pride, to consider that we might be wrong, might not have the facts (who wants to be ignorant?).

How do we do this? How does it manifest, where is the harm?

We do this when we become critical of others, when they behave in a way that we do not approve of, but we may not realize, that we might have done the same thing in their position. Friendships can be damaged, congregations torn apart, or, if not torn apart, we separate into factions or cliques, where we justify why we are not like those other guys, as the do the same thing concerning us. This is not pleasing to God, we are one family, we are to love the brethren, bearing one another’s burdens, making peace, forgiving each other, as God also forgave us. Before you are tempted to reply and scold me and tell me that the Bible instructs us to judge those in church, save your breath, I understand that. Again, that is not the subject here. My topic is more about jumping to unfounded conclusions.

Another way that we manifest this faulty type of judgement, is we sometimes blame God, when something in our life is not as we think it should be. We have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. God is the only one who knows all of the details, that lead Him to the actions He performs, or allows things in our lives, that we may not like. We do not know what greater purpose might be served by our discomfort, or how those things are shaping us into better people, perfecting us in areas that need change inour lives. Perhaps the biggest thing we forget, is that while we may approach His throne and make requests, the decisions are His, and they are always right. We were bought with a price, we belong to Him, and we have no rightful claim on our own lives. To the extent that we maintain our own sense of entitlement, we are outside of His perfect will for us. We are at our best, when we complete surrender ourselves to His will. It is not a natural thing for us to do, it is a supernatural quality. Jesus said it best:

“Never-the-less, thy will, not my will, be done.”


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What an insightful article.  I found your facts relating to the McDonald mishap very informing.  Like you mentioned, we only heard bits and pieces and jumped to the conclusion that the lawsuit was a total misuse of our justice system.  In the time it took to read your article, my whole outlook on the incident changed from a sense of anger to wanting to find out how she is doing.  Thank you so much for sharing this information.  You tied this in with how we as Christians tend to judge people by what we hear or see without knowing the truth.  I know I have a tendency to do that very thing.  This article hopefully will readjust this attitude.  Thank you.

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