I have a compulsion, you might say, to point out urban legends and misinformation when I see them on the Internet. (It's a source of endless frustration that people sitting in front of the biggest and best research library ever built by man, with instant, zero-cost, effortless access to it, send out so much misinformation.) So when I saw a reference to the infamous McDonalds coffee lawsuit in a screed about personal responsibility on another blog, I had to point out the facts. The blog owner showed no interest in being corrected and stuck doggedly to the original, poorly-thought-out conclusion, and thus lost several points of respect from me.
Here's the common myth version of the story: the impression most people get from hearing the incomplete version is that ordinary coffee was spilled irresponsibly, and the person who spilled it passed off blame on McDonalds in spite of the fact that everyone knows "coffee is supposed to be hot". An out-of-control legal system awarded ridiculous damages. This is proof positive that the idea of personal responsibility is gone from our society, and that our legal system is in dire need of tort reform.
And now, the facts. "Hot coffee" is generally at a temperature of 130-140 degrees; at that temperature, a spill will cause minor burns and discomfort. At the time, McDonalds was serving coffee at 190 degrees. At that temperature, it will cause third degree burns, sufficient to require skin grafting or debridement and generally hospitalization, in under seven seconds. At the time of this incident, McDonalds had already been served with a formal warning from the Shriner Burn Institute, which they ignored. They had also had over 700 previous injuries or complaints.
The plaintiff spilled coffee on herself and as a result, endured third-degree open burns on six percent of her body. She required eight days of hospitalization, including skin grafts and debridement treatment. Her original request was for $20,000, which was not even the total of her medical costs. McDonalds refused, inviting a lawsuit. During the trial, they claimed to have had no knowledge of any danger, a claim which was soon revealed as a bald-faced lie. They also claimed that their use of a dangerously high temperature was on the assumption that people buy coffee intending to take it to school or work to consume there; plaintiff's counsel demonstrated McDonalds' own research had already disproved this.
A clear case was demonstrated that McDonalds had willfully ignored a significant hazard and allowed an ongoing pattern of injury to customers to continue in the interest of profit. Compensatory damages were ruled at $200,000, but since the plaintiff was found to be 20% at fault (a claim which she never denied), they were reduced commensurately. The jury also awarded punitive damages of $2.7M, though this was significantly reduced. The plaintiff then arranged to settle for far, far less than the awarded amount; the settlement was conducted privately and is sealed, though some have speculated that the amount is the $20,000 she originally sought.
Even though it was immediately cut down more than 80% and then never actually paid, the $2.7M punitive damages may seem excessive if seen from the plaintiff's viewpoint. But the purpose of punitive damages is, as the name implies, to offer a punishment that will act as a deterrent. Fining a multibillion-dollar company a few hundred thousand is not going to deter them from anything. Note that even if McDonalds had had to pay the full $2.7M, this only represents two days worth of coffee sales for McDonalds.
The most important concession which the plaintiff obtained from McDonalds, however, is this: McDonalds now serves coffee at the same temperature as other restaurants and coffee shops.
The popular conception is that there's been an erosion of personal responsibility. However, this impression is an intentionally engineered one, created by the conservative movement to distract from the more serious issue: corporate responsibility. To be sure, there are frivolous lawsuits, as there have always been. However, the number of lawsuits has been on a steady decline since 1975, and median damage amounts have also decreased (from $65,000 in 1992 to $37,000 in 2005). And the vast majority of those lawsuits are brought by companies, not individuals; worse yet, lawsuits brought by companies are thrown out by judges as frivolous 69% more often than those brought by individuals. Where is this decline in personal responsibility? It's certainly not in our litigious legal system!
The push for tort reform is nothing more than the drive to limit the ability of the average American to hold megacorporations to a standard of accountability. Is it any surprise, really, to hear an administration that has consistently worked to undermine environmental, free trade, and other regulations on businesses, and that has consistently demonstrated a repugnance for the idea of accountability in its own activities, would be so enthusiastic about taking more power away from the people to give it to the corporations?