Unfortunately, many journalists take trial-lawyer Susan Saladoff's conspiracy theory about the McDonald's coffee case at face value, and don't sufficiently scrutinize the movie's claims. Here are some questions for more enterprising journalists to ask.
- "The lawyer in the McDonald's coffee case said that any coffee above 140 degrees is unreasonably dangerous. But the optimal brewing temperature for coffee is much higher than that; Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, Wendy's, and many other vendors sell coffee just as hot as Stella Liebeck's coffee, and have all been sued for causing third-degree burns in the last ten years. What punitive damages do you think Starbucks should be subject to for selling hot coffee at a temperature higher than Liebeck's? Why do you think Starbucks is so successful even though it sells coffee that Liebeck's lawyer called "unreasonably dangerous"? Is it fair for every major vendor of coffee be subject to millions of dollars of punitive damages when it's clear that consumers prefer hot coffee?"
- "In the movie, we see a picture of Stella Liebeck's coffee cup. There's a visible warning on the cup that the coffee is hot. What warning do you think McDonald's should have put on the cup to protect themselves from liability?"
- "The British High Court of Justice and Judge Easterbrook of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals have thrown out hot-coffee cases similar or identical to Stella Liebeck's. Are they wrong as a matter of law? Why is it wrong for tort reformers like Ted Frank to complain that the New Mexico judge failed to do what the vast majority of other courts have done when confronted with claims similar to Liebeck's?"
- "Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on herself, and sued McDonald's. But if her car had a cup holder, she wouldn't have been holding the coffee between her legs; or if her sweatpants had been made out of a non-absorbent material instead of cotton, she wouldn't have been injured by her coffee spill. Why isn't the car maker or sweatpants maker just as liable as McDonald's?"
- "The movie repeats the argument that McDonald's should have done something because it had hundreds of incidents of hot coffee burns. There are hundreds of emergency-room visits from people who have injured themselves from cutting bagels; there was even a front-page Washington Post story on the problem. Should bagel manufacturers be liable for punitive damages if someone cuts themselves slicing a bagel? If not, what's the difference between that case and McDonald's? What about burns from hot pizza, which have been recognized in the medical literature for nearly 30 years?"
Relatedly, the Center for Justice & Democracy spreads false urban legends about the hot-coffee case in the course of substanceless snark at a post I wrote debunking a typically shoddy CJD study. They claim that Stella Liebeck's coffee was as "hot as a car radiator." This, like much else on their website, is simply false. A car radiator temperature, between chemical coolants and pressurization, is between 195 and 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Stella Liebeck's coffee was between 170 and 180 degrees, and would rapidly cool when exposed to room temperature.