Remember that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

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RebLem
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Remember that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by RebLem » Fri Oct 07, 2011 2:04 pm

Documentary looks at Albuquerque's 'hot coffee' lawsuit

Posted at: 10/06/2011 10:50 PM | Updated at: 10/06/2011 11:15 PM | By: Stuart Dyson, KOB [ABQ's NBC affailiate] Eyewitness News 4

A documentary film about Albuquerque's notorious "hot coffee" lawsuit is the headliner at the 2011 Duke City DocFest. It may change the way you think about the case of the little old lady and the cup of scalding coffee from McDonald's.

It happened in 1995 after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck got a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-up window. Her grandson was at the wheel. Stella was in the passenger seat. "I wanted to get the top off, get the cream and sugar in it," Liebeck told reporters back in 1995. "I put it between my knees to steady it with this hand, trying to get the top off, and it just went plop!"

Plop indeed. Images in the film show horrifying 3rd degree burns on Stella's thighs and groin. "I was burned so severely they thought I would die," Liebeck said. She asked McDonald's for two things: $20,000 dollars to cover her medical expenses and cooler coffee temperatures at McDonald's.

At that time [McDonald's] offered coffee ranging from 180 to 190 degrees - about 40 degrees hotter than most restaurants offer. McDonald's declined, and Liebeck sued. A jury saw it her way and ordered McDonald's to pay her nearly $3 million.

The judge later whittled that down to $480,000, but the $3 million cup of coffee became notorious coast to coast. Late night TV comics lampooned the case repeatedly. Seinfeld featured an episode with Kramer trying to pull off a hot coffee scam. Andy Rooney criticized the case on 60 Minutes. It became the national symbol for "frivolous" lawsuits.

"I was stunned at the public outcry and all of the blowback that we got," Liebeck's lawyer Ken Wagner said Friday. "It was a pretty straightforward case to me and it wasn't a difficult case to try. It took a lot of courage on her part at 79 years of age to take on a major corporation the way she did."

The film, entitled - what else? - "Hot Coffee", by Susan Saladoff, explodes the myth that the case was a frivolous joke. Time after time, people who express negative opinions about the case do a 180 degree turnabout when shown pictures of Liebeck's burns. The film takes a critical look at the political movement called "tort reform" that seeks to establish limits on the amount of damages juries can award.

Albuquerque film-maker Jesse Quackenbush, who is also a lawyer, brought the film in for this year's Duke City DocFest. The festival starts at Albuquerque's Kimo Theater next Wednesday and runs through the following Sunday.

"It is a jaw-dropper," Quackenbush said Friday. “It literally examines one of the, I believe, biggest frauds ever perpetrated on America. People walk out of it and actually say Stelle deserved every penny she got out of that jury - but their perception before they walked in was completely the opposite."

Stelle Liebeck died a few years ago. She was in her 90's.

McDonald's still sells a lot of coffee. Most customers will tell you it's good, but it's not as hot as it used to be.

http://www.kob.com/article/stories/S231 ... ml?cat=516
Last edited by RebLem on Sun Oct 09, 2011 11:05 am, edited 1 time in total.
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by John F » Fri Oct 07, 2011 11:55 pm

Coffee is hot. If it isn't, people complain and send it back. If you're clumsy enough to spill it on your unprotected skin, you're likely to harm yourself. The key words are "clumsy" and "yourself." Regardless of what the injury looked like, the judgment was absurd and the amount of the award was insane.

You want to protect yourself, order iced coffee instead.
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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by keaggy220 » Sat Oct 08, 2011 5:25 am

John F wrote:Coffee is hot. If it isn't, people complain and send it back. If you're clumsy enough to spill it on your unprotected skin, you're likely to harm yourself. The key words are "clumsy" and "yourself." Regardless of what the injury looked like, the judgment was absurd and the amount of the award was insane.

You want to protect yourself, order iced coffee instead.
Well said...

McDonald's and consumers were the victims in this case.

It's like steadying a nail between your fingers before striking with a hammer. You know the risks.
"I guess we're all, or most of us, the wards of the nineteenth-century sciences which denied existence of anything it could not reason or explain. The things we couldn't explain went right on but not with our blessing... So many old and lovely things are stored in the world's attic, because we don't want them around us and we don't dare throw them out."
— John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent


"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God."
- Micah 6:8

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 08, 2011 7:50 am

John F wrote:Coffee is hot. If it isn't, people complain and send it back. If you're clumsy enough to spill it on your unprotected skin, you're likely to harm yourself. The key words are "clumsy" and "yourself." Regardless of what the injury looked like, the judgment was absurd and the amount of the award was insane.
I've burned my tongue on McDonald's coffee, which is already a sign that they were serving it too hot. Sorry, but if it's hot enough to cause a third degree burn, then it seems to me they're liable. A third degree burn means tissue destruction, as if the skin were being cooked.

I think Rob posted this as an example of balanced reporting, but it does not escape one that behind the scenes are the forces working to cap product liability suits (and medical malpractice awards as well). This is the right wing's idea of a deregulated society: The rules place no limits on corporate greed and severe ones on monetary justice for those injured through neglect.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by Febnyc » Sat Oct 08, 2011 8:10 am

Although, amazingly, the word "Republican" (or any of the poster's variations on the theme), does not appear in the article, nor has it been added - the inference is there in the references to "tort reform," right wing ideas," etc.

I ran a reinsurance company - we saw many examples of absurd claims against (usually large corporate) defendants and the astounding results often handed over by juries populated by babes in the woods who looked to "compensate" the poor plaintiff and reach into the deep pockets (read: well-insured) of the "enemy" in the dock.

For instance: A man won a large award against Toro Corporation for lifting his power lawn mower to trim his hedges. When it fell out of his hands and cut off one of his feet he claimed that the instruction booklet said nothing about the dangers inherent in doing this.

For instance: A man making a telephone call in a phone booth at a railroad station was struck and badly injured by an out-of-control truck, with faulty brakes, driven by a drunk driver. Against whom was the large award levied? It was split between the phone company (AT&T) and the railroad (ConRail) for their complicity in allowing the phone booth to be too close to the grade crossing and the tracks.

I could go on.

These ridiculous claims, and the tacit acknowledgement of their validity by juries, are costing us untold amounts of money in increased premiums, costs of outrageous "safety" codes and the like. The whole buggy ride is driven by rapacious personal injury lawyers - and this country produces more lawyers per capita than any other. Just look at the adverts on TV, as an example. Law firms pleading with people to contact them.

I am not saying that all personal injury suits are groundless - but a very large percentage are and this Mc-coffee one leads the way. What happened to personal responsibility? It is hiding behind huge contingency fees and sympathetic but unknowing jury panels.

And - one more point - I nominate the author of this thread to be placed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest and most consistent one-track mind in existence. It's a hoot!

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by John F » Sat Oct 08, 2011 8:27 am

Hot coffee is always too hot for my tongue, whether in a restaurant or out of a vending machine. That is, until I add milk, which I always do. Shall we poll CMG members for their opinions?

That aside, as far as I know, there's no legal or common-practice standard for the maximum temperature of coffee when served, above which the server is liable for damages. But according to one source, the Specialist Coffee Association of America, "the optimal water temperature for coffee is 92 - 96C (197.6 - 204.8F) for 90% of the contact time" - meaning when it is brewed.

http://coffeefaq.com/site/node/26

So it's quite reasonable that McDonald's "required franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190° F (82–88° C)."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v. ... estaurants

You drop an anvil on your foot, the damage to your foot can't be properly blamed on a defective anvil. You drop hot coffee on your skin, the damage to your skin can't be properly blamed on "defective coffee," as Liebeck's lawyers absurdly argued. Aside from the verdict in favor of the plaintiff, which I maintain was improper and suspect was mostly about the jury's empathy with Mrs. Liebeck, the main consequence has been that McDonald's now puts "sternly worded warnings" on its coffee cups - "Don't drop coffee on yourself, you klutz!" Or something. It's a tempest in a coffee cup.
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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Oct 08, 2011 8:58 am

I appreciate both Frank's post and John's reply. I'm having trouble wrapping myself around a consumable product that is hot enough to cause a third-degree burn. However, I did find this:

http://www.accuratebuilding.com/service ... graph.html

Most adults will suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150 degree water for two seconds. Burns will also occur with a six-second exposure to 140 degree water or with a thirty second exposure to 130 degree water. Even if the temperature is 120 degrees, a five minute exposure could result in third-degree burns.

Makes you wonder why we haven't all suffered third degree burns from spilled hot liquids.

Frank, I wonder if the solution is to take damage suits out the hands of juries and perhaps create specialized judges or panels of judges (as we do with administrative law) to hear them. Since I just invented that idea, there is probably something wrong with it, I mean besides the fact that ATLA would see that it never happend.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by John F » Sat Oct 08, 2011 10:09 am

A stove is a consumer product that's hot enough to cause a third degree burn or worse, if you're careless or clumsy or stupid enough to touch the burner when it's hot. If somebody does, do they sue the stove manufacturer for not having made it impossible? Or for not printing a warning next to each burner?

Hot water out of the shower or the tap is a different issue. It's meant to flow directly onto your skin, so obviously it can't be scalding hot. If there's a standard temperature for hot water out of the tap, it may be 100° F. At least, that's what I used to read in cookbooks, before the word got out that you shouldn't cook with hot tap water because it might have picked up some lead from the pipes. I once checked the hot water in my apartment, and it was indeed about 100°. That's consistent with jbuck919's source.

Cooking is something else. The hot water isn't supposed to contact the cook's skin but the food or whatever that's being boiled or simmered or warmed or brewed. By the time the pasta or the coffee reaches the table, it's no longer as hot as it was, and if it's still too hot, we wait a little longer before eating/drinking it, or we blow on it, or whatever. The cook is not liable if we don't take adequate, common-sense care when handling or eating or drinking hot stuff. Which Ms. Liebeck certainly did not.
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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by living_stradivarius » Sat Oct 08, 2011 12:28 pm

Are any other countries this ridiculous with lawsuits?
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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by Febnyc » Sat Oct 08, 2011 3:17 pm

jbuck919 wrote: Frank, I wonder if the solution is to take damage suits out the hands of juries and perhaps create specialized judges or panels of judges (as we do with administrative law) to hear them. Since I just invented that idea, there is probably something wrong with it, I mean besides the fact that ATLA would see that it never happend.

John - your sensible wonderment has been run up the flagpole often inside various tort reform ideas. I am not sure there is anything inherently wrong in it, in a perfect world without individual prejudices and influences, but you also have answered your own question accurately. The personal injury bar (to which so many legislators either are attached or to some degree beholden or sympathetic) simply won't let it happen, no how no way.

And, to answer Strad's question - no other country's legal processes provide for this level of absurdity, as far as I know (or knew - since I have been out of circulation for eons now).

If you're interested in one effect of third-party liability suits - just look at any owner's manual today. The warnings (mostly printed in bold lettering) far outweigh the relevant text. If you bother to read these "alerts" you will see that they are nothing more than everyday common sense, describing situations which any clear-thinking, reasonably intelligent human being would recognize as hazardous (pace John F's comment about the coffee-cup posters). And, the funny thing is that many courts give little credit, if any at all, to these printed warnings - and many courts ignore, or rewrite, insurance policy wording to broaden the exposure of the defendant(s).

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by RebLem » Sat Oct 08, 2011 5:56 pm

John F wrote:Hot water out of the shower or the tap is a different issue. It's meant to flow directly onto your skin, so obviously it can't be scalding hot. If there's a standard temperature for hot water out of the tap, it may be 100° F. At least, that's what I used to read in cookbooks, before the word got out that you shouldn't cook with hot tap water because it might have picked up some lead from the pipes. I once checked the hot water in my apartment, and it was indeed about 100°. That's consistent with jbuck919's source.
Its in the 120-125 F range.

Mickey D's made its coffee superhot because it often sells to truckers who don't drink it right away and who want it to stay hot for a half hour or so on the road. A very small amount of thought will reveal that Mickey D had a number of ways of keeping its coffee superhot and still limiting its liability in cases like Stella Liebeck's. It could have served it in a more rigid cup instead of an extremely pliable cup with a much more rigid lid--a recipe for disaster. It could have offered its customers the option of having staff add whatever desired sweetener or creamer to the coffee and stirring it themselves to ensure an even mix. Or it could offer a lid that is not so dam difficult to cut out a small wedge for sweetening, creaming, and drinking. It could have offered to have its staff experts peel back a wedge of the lid, or weaken the bind it had with the rest of the lid so it would not be so difficult a task for the customer. I'll bet they seriously experimented with that option but found they had so many employee injuries as a result for which they would be clealy liable that they decided to avoid it. They should have taken that as a warning, and they were negligent in not doing so. Fact is, Mickey D chose to do none of these things. The jury did consider Stella Liebeck as having, I believe, about 30% responsibility for the accident, but still decided the injury was so severe and so easily preventable by any number of alternative serving methods, that the bulk of the responsibility lay with Mickey D. Seems reasonable to me.
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
"We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."--Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S. Carolina.
"Racism is America's Original Sin."--Francis Cardinal George, former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by Febnyc » Sun Oct 09, 2011 7:48 am

There is little that can be described as "reasonable" in this whole affair.

OK - so the jury, in its wisdom, found the plaintiff liable for 30% of the incident. Her out-of-pocket expenses were $20,000. This means that the gross (pun intended, also) amount they "calculated" for her pain and suffering was somewhere in the area of $4.3 million dollars. This is reasonable? (Never mind that a judge later reduced the award - we're discussing the initial court findings.) I would enjoy seeing how the jury arrived at this number.

And the film-maker, this Quackenbush, calls the incident "...one of the biggest frauds ever perpetetrated on America." After my chuckling at this amazing bit of hyperbole I began to wonder 1) what exactly was the "fraud," and 2) how, in the world of frauds, does it rise to the level of, say, the Madoff scheme, Teapot Dome, the Salad Oil Scandal and, hmmm, the original invention of Charles Ponzi?

Finally, how much "courage" did it take for the plaintiff to "take on a major corporation?" Her lawyer did all the work - and I would bet he encouraged her and her family along the way with visions of dollar signs dancing overhead.

I am not dismissing the injuries incurred by this person - she obviously was careless and suffered as a result of that carelessness. But to define this mess as "reasonable" defies sense - common or otherwise.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by diegobueno » Sun Oct 09, 2011 9:18 am

The article RebLem quoted wrote: It happened in 1995 after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck got a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-up window. Her grandson was at the wheel. Stella was in the passenger seat. "I wanted to get the top off, get the cream and sugar in it," Liebeck told reporters back in 1995. "I put it between my knees to steady it with this hand, trying to get the top off, and it just went plop!"

I think what RebLem's father said about drinking and driving applies also to coffee. I have to say that putting a styrofoam cup between your knees while trying to pry the lid off is pretty much guaranteed to produce spillage, and the motions of the car don't improve the situation any. I don't think there's any way to get a coffee lid off in a moving car without a high risk of spillage. These days, when you order coffee at a McDonald's drive through window, they ask you if you want cream and sugar, and then put that in before handing you the coffee. I don't know if the failure to do this in 1995 constitutes liability, but I do think the lady was foolish to think she could take the lid off her coffee without it spilling.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by John F » Sun Oct 09, 2011 9:22 am

Actually, Liebeck's son parked the car so she could deal with the coffee. But we're talking about a 79-year-old woman whose hands may perhaps not be that steady, and whose judgment was plainly pretty bad.
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Re: Remember that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by RebLem » Sun Oct 09, 2011 11:26 am

$20,000 was the extent of Liebeck's medical bills at the time she filed the original claim. Before her treatment was over, it had cost much more than that, and, of course, compensatory damages included attorneys fees. I've found she was considered 20% responsible, not 30%. I think part of the problem is that when told of this story, most people picture Stella Liebeck wearing a skirt and putting the coffee cup between bare knees. That is not the case. She was wearing sweatpants at the time. Oh, and the original $2.7 million award was mostly punitive damages and did not come out of a hat. It is the amount of money McDonalds grosses in an average two day period just from coffee sales. Liebeck sued when McDonalds offered a paltry $800 settlement. Found this at another site, a site dedicated to setting the record straight on inaccurate media-blighted lawsuits:

There is a lot of hype about the McDonalds' scalding coffee case. No one is in favor of frivolous cases of outlandish results; however, it is important to understand some points that were not reported in most of the stories about the case. McDonalds coffee was not only hot, it was scalding -- capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh and muscle. Here's the whole story.

Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in the passenger seat of her grandson's car when she was severely burned by McDonalds' coffee in February 1992. Liebeck, 79 at the time, ordered coffee that was served in a styrofoam cup at the drivethrough window of a local McDonalds.

After receiving the order, the grandson pulled his car forward and stopped momentarily so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. (Critics of civil justice, who have pounced on this case, often charge that Liebeck was driving the car or that the vehicle was in motion when she spilled the coffee; neither is true.) Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and attempted to remove the plastic lid from the cup. As she removed the lid, the entire contents of the cup spilled into her lap.

The sweatpants Liebeck was wearing absorbed the coffee and held it next to her skin. A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

During discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.

McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.

Further, McDonalds' quality assurance manager testified that the company actively enforces a requirement that coffee be held in the pot at 185 degrees, plus or minus five degrees. He also testified that a burn hazard exists with any food substance served at 140 degrees or above, and that McDonalds coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat. The quality assurance manager admitted that burns would occur, but testified that McDonalds had no intention of reducing the "holding temperature" of its coffee.

Plaintiffs' expert, a scholar in thermodynamics applied to human skin burns, testified that liquids, at 180 degrees, will cause a full thickness burn to human skin in two to seven seconds. Other testimony showed that as the temperature decreases toward 155 degrees, the extent of the burn relative to that temperature decreases exponentially. Thus, if Liebeck's spill had involved coffee at 155 degrees, the liquid would have cooled and given her time to avoid a serious burn.

McDonalds asserted that customers buy coffee on their way to work or home, intending to consume it there. However, the companys own research showed that customers intend to consume the coffee immediately while driving.

McDonalds also argued that consumers know coffee is hot and that its customers want it that way. The company admitted its customers were unaware that they could suffer thirddegree burns from the coffee and that a statement on the side of the cup was not a "warning" but a "reminder" since the location of the writing would not warn customers of the hazard.

The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds' coffee sales.

Post-verdict investigation found that the temperature of coffee at the local Albuquerque McDonalds had dropped to 158 degrees fahrenheit.

The trial court subsequently reduced the punitive award to $480,000 -- or three times compensatory damages -- even though the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.

No one will ever know the final ending to this case.

The parties eventually entered into a secret settlement which has never been revealed to the public, despite the fact that this was a public case, litigated in public and subjected to extensive media reporting. Such secret settlements, after public trials, should not be condoned.


http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
"We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."--Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S. Carolina.
"Racism is America's Original Sin."--Francis Cardinal George, former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

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Re: Remember that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by John F » Sun Oct 09, 2011 1:20 pm

Do you want to post the complete transcript of the trial? All this stuff doesn't change the basic fact that a 79-year-old woman was handling a hot drink in a potentially risky and clearly a clumsy way, and she spilled some of it on herself. If she was so physically ill-coordinated that she shouldn't be considered responsible for her own actions, then she should have asked her son to do it for her. He was right beside her in the car.
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Re: Remember that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by RebLem » Sun Oct 09, 2011 1:30 pm

John F wrote:Do you want to post the complete transcript of the trial? All this stuff doesn't change the basic fact that a 79-year-old woman was handling a hot drink in a potentially risky and clearly a clumsy way, and she spilled some of it on herself. If she was so physically ill-coordinated that she shouldn't be considered responsible for her own actions, then she should have asked her son to do it for her. He was right beside her in the car.
Grandson.
Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.--J. Eugene Baker, aka my late father
"We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."--Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S. Carolina.
"Racism is America's Original Sin."--Francis Cardinal George, former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

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Re: Rememer that hot coffee lawsuit? Take another look

Post by keaggy220 » Sun Oct 09, 2011 11:06 pm

diegobueno wrote:
The article RebLem quoted wrote: It happened in 1995 after 79-year-old Stella Liebeck got a cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-up window. Her grandson was at the wheel. Stella was in the passenger seat. "I wanted to get the top off, get the cream and sugar in it," Liebeck told reporters back in 1995. "I put it between my knees to steady it with this hand, trying to get the top off, and it just went plop!"

I think what RebLem's father said about drinking and driving applies also to coffee. I have to say that putting a styrofoam cup between your knees while trying to pry the lid off is pretty much guaranteed to produce spillage, and the motions of the car don't improve the situation any. I don't think there's any way to get a coffee lid off in a moving car without a high risk of spillage. These days, when you order coffee at a McDonald's drive through window, they ask you if you want cream and sugar, and then put that in before handing you the coffee. I don't know if the failure to do this in 1995 constitutes liability, but I do think the lady was foolish to think she could take the lid off her coffee without it spilling.
It turns out that she wasn't foolish at all... Maybe crazy like a fox...
"I guess we're all, or most of us, the wards of the nineteenth-century sciences which denied existence of anything it could not reason or explain. The things we couldn't explain went right on but not with our blessing... So many old and lovely things are stored in the world's attic, because we don't want them around us and we don't dare throw them out."
— John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent


"He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God."
- Micah 6:8

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