Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants | Elizabeth Gam | May 29, 2018

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Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s Restaurants

The ‘hot coffee case’ of 1994, concerning anAlbuquerque woman who was doused with unacceptably hot coffee,is now infamous. Law and philosophy students alike use it as a classic thought exercise. In this article, I attempt to analyse it similarly byaccomplishing two things. First, bycovering the facts of the case. Second, by discovering the extent to which the verdict was just or unjust by evaluating some of its key arguments. This article is less concerned with the controversy surrounding the case and more with the process of reasoning within, but will allude to the former where pertinent.

Stella Liebeck, a 79 year-old widow, was sitting in her grandson’s car at a McDonald’s drive through ordering a meal. There were no cup holders in the car to accommodate for the hot beverages they had ordered, so her grandson parked his car right after receiving their meals. In attempting to remove the lid of her coffee cup while motionless in the parking lot, coffee spilled onto her lap, scorching 6% of her body with third degree burns. The coffee was estimated to be 180-190º Fahrenheit, or 82 to 88º Celsius. Experts agree these temperatures are more than enough to induce this sort of damage in less than a second.As compensation, Liebeck’s lawyers demanded $20,000 but were refused by McDonald’s. The amount awarded to her ended up instead at $200,000 US, which was then reduced to $160,000 on account of her having a hand in the injury. A jury then demanded an additional $2.7 million in an attempt to encourage the restaurant chain to lower the temperature of its coffee.

For the uninitiated, the controversy surrounding this case concerns McDonald’s Restaurants’ attempt to trivialise and defame Liebeck to diminish her case. For instance, it was held by many that Ms Liebeck was not only in a moving vehicle, but driving it when the accident occurred. The ethics of this particular incident hardly need to be articulated; no entity should attempt to influence a court case by defaming their adversary. If they can prove wrongdoing or negligence, then that’s an entirely different matter, but in this case it was raw ad hominem and therefore had no place in a court of law wherein evidence is held in highest regard. It was also held that because the coffee’s high temperature was an industry standard across similar chains like Wendy’s due to alleged flavour enhancing reasons, the product wasn’t defective. In reality, this argument was dismissed for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

  1. a) The coffee was heated at that temperature for an unrelated capitalistic reason, and
  2. b) The beverage itself and the cup it was stored in were of low quality, the parameters of such quality being arbitrary for the purposes of this discussion.

Even if these reasons were not present, to suggest the product was not defective defines an underlying problem. Given the readily available knowledge of how devastating 88º-Celsius liquids are on human skin, McDonald’s restaurants and similar chains were knowingly marketing and distributing dangerous liquids to millions of consumers. However, this was one of the major contentions of the case; is hot coffee, a beverage designed to be hot, an unreasonably dangerous consumable? Naturally, the answer is extent; it’s a fact of human physiology that there are simply some temperatures we can’t deal with. The McDonald’s legal team posited, “there could be no doubt that potable coffee is, by its very nature, hot” in an attempt to shake the heat complaint, but this is merely a dismissive rhetorical device. The argument here is, in essence, ‘if coffee is designed to be hot and you order hot coffee knowing its nature then why are you complaining about it being hot?’ It skilfully dances around the main point of contention, namely the extent to which the coffee is or ought to be hot, by focussing entirely on the wrong thing. It’s a tactic the sophists of bygone days would deploy ad nauseam: distract the audience with pithy truisms. It’s no different in this case. Yes, technically correct that the product, ‘hot coffee’ should be expected hot. Entirely unfair, on the other hand, to have consumers assume it would be dangerously so.Therefore, I posit this particular argument is a shameful example of what legal discourse can become should we let it.

This woman wasn’t speeding into luxury resorts with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on her searing coffee. She was sitting in a parking space just trying to open a cup. So, you should find it unsurprising that I consider the verdict just then. The case had a great deal of other intricacies, such as doctors giving testimony as to the dangers of coffee at the temperatures they were and the manner in which the $2.7 million figure was calculated on the basis of coffee sales. Yet, I find the underlying hollowness of the previous argument to be a resounding failure of the McDonald’s legal team, yet that’s speaking from the present. At the time, surrounding controversy painted Ms Liebrick as the clumsy villain of this story. It just goes to show how powerful narratives can be in derailing the course of otherwise-useful discourse.

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May 29, 2018

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Elizabeth Gam

JD/PhD

New York University

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