A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

McDonald’s lawsuit: the rest of the story

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., March 10, 11 or 12

A local TV station recently posted on its web site a short piece headlined, “McDonald’s sued for $1.5 million over napkin dispute.” Credited to MGN Online (a subscription news/graphic aggregator), the item starts out saying, “McDonald’s is facing a $1.5-million lawsuit from a new Golden Arch enemy” and attributes its information to “reporting” from TMZ, a self-described “celebrity gossip and entertainment news” source known for flippantly “covering” stories it sensationalizes.

The brief continues, “A California man says he was only given one napkin at McDonald's, and when he requested more, a manager allegedly refused and made a comment that the man saw as racist.”

Many people think society has become too litigious, and some – especially anti-trial lawyer types (who haven’t yet needed an attorney themselves) – regard the civil-court system as cluttered with “frivolous” lawsuits. However, when this story – purporting to be news – adds, “This isn't the first bizarre lawsuit the fast food chain has faced,” it became a commentary or column without being identified as opinion.

It also piles on the misleading characterization of McDonald’s as once more being victimized like it did when a woman supposedly won millions of dollars over spilling hot coffee on herself.


This incident may, indeed, be ridiculous, but it’s unwise to assume so. After all, as proven by lousy reporting on the spilled coffee case, missing is – as the late radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say – “the rest of the story.”

In 1992, an Albuquerque, N.M., widow, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on her lap and suffered burns to 16 percent of her body – some 3rd-degree burns. How? According to court records summarized by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, she was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car, ordered coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through, and received it in a foam cup. Then the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Some reports said Liebeck was driving or claimed the car was in motion when the coffee spilled – both are false.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and struggled with removing the cup’s plastic lid. As the lid came off, the whole cup of scalding coffee spilled into her lap.

Liebeck was wearing sweatpants, which absorbed the hot coffee and kept it next to her skin. Liebeck went into shock, was hospitalized for eight days and required skin grafts on the burns, incurring $10,000 in medical bills. A surgeon determined that she suffered 3rd-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, buttocks and groin.

Afterward, Liebeck sought to settle her claim for $20,000 and asked McDonald’s to check the temperature of their coffee, but McDonald’s refused.

Her attorneys proceeded with the case and discovered McDonald’s documents showing that more than 700 people had complained of being burned by its coffee from 1982-1992. Some claims involved 3rd-degree burns like Liebeck’s, demonstrating that the company was aware of the nature and extent of this hazard.

McDonalds also conceded its consultants recommended keeping its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. The dangers were not considered, they admitted. Other restaurants keep coffee at much lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally about 135 degrees.

At McDonald’s temperature, the coffee was capable of almost immediate destruction of muscle and flesh, and the chain’s' quality assurance manager testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat.

Testifying for Liebeck, a thermodynamics expert said that liquids at 180 degrees will burn skin in two to seven seconds.

McDonald’s claimed that customers buy coffee on their way to other destinations where it will have cooled, but its own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately – while driving.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, but that was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault. The jury also recommended awarding Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, a sum tied to about two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

The judge called the corporation’s conduct reckless, callous and willful, but the court eventually reduced the punitive award to $480,000 – or three times compensatory damages. The parties eventually settled in a secret agreement that’s never been made public.

Liebeck died 10 years ago, but the spin, or myth, unfortunately lives on. Fortunately, some news media try to correct the reporting. The New York Times in October did a 12-minute broadcast-quality story titled “Scalded by Coffee, Then News Media.” It’s online:

[PICTURED: New York Times graphic via]

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