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CJD still lying about hot coffee

Litigation-lobby front Center for Justice and Democracy is still falsely claiming that McDonald's "coffee was as hot as a car radiator." As we've previously noted, "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."

Note also the humor in CJD's use of the passive voice: Liebeck was injured when "McDonald's coffee spilled in her lap." Well, who could complain about a lawsuit where coffee magically spilled itself? Oh, Stella Liebeck spilled the coffee on herself? Gee, that would seem a fact relevant to the assignation of proximate causation when evaluating whether it's appropriate to criticize a court that allowed this case to get to a jury, unlike over 90% of other courts that have dealt with cases similarly claiming that hot coffee was a "defective product."

Liebeck's injuries came from dumping an entire cup of coffee in her own lap while sitting in a car without a cup-holder, and then sitting in that hot coffee for well over a minute while wearing absorbent clothing. As Liebeck's own lawyer claimed, any coffee hotter than 140 degrees would be "unsafe" in those conditions. Unless you wish juries to have the power to punish vendors like McDonald's and Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and everyone else that commercially sells coffee, that's no more McDonald's fault than it is Liebeck's auto manufacturer or sweatpants manufacturer.

That CJD and Susan Saladoff single out the poster child of abusive litigation as the point of attack on the tort reform movement—without ever fairly addressing the actual arguments tort reformers make—shows the bankruptcy of that attack.

Update, January 27: Welcome, readers of the dishonest "Pop Tort" blog. Note how they cherry-pick a couple of websites that say that radiator temperatures are 190 degrees. Of course, 190 degrees is hotter than Stella Liebeck's coffee (which, even if was "held" at 190 degrees, which there was no evidence of, would rapidly drop in temperature as soon as it stopped being held at that temperature); moreover, most websites give much higher temperatures for car radiators: "Most engines today are designed to operate within a "normal" temperature range of about 195 to 220 degrees F"; (same); many thermostats are set at 195 degrees for car radiators, etc. The only reason to use the "car radiator" analogy is to mislead. At best, a car radiator has such a wide range of temperatures that it is meaningless to use the analogy; if you're saying that Stella Liebeck's coffee is as "hot as a car radiator" because you're claiming that car radiators are 160 degrees, well, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's and Burger King and Wendy's and Caribou Coffee and 7-Eleven and Cosi are selling coffee today that's hotter than 160 degrees—much less the 140 degrees that Stella Liebeck's lawyer claims makes coffee "unreasonably dangerous."

Note further how Pop Tort makes up a brand new theory of liability for McDonald's—that the cups were not capable of holding hot coffee—that not even Stella Liebeck's lawyer had the chutzpah to argue. Of course, there's no evidence for the proposition that McDonald's was selling coffee in cups that would collapse if "poked by a finger"; if they were, then the rate of injury from coffee spills would be far higher than 1-in-23-million cups (i.e., several times less likely than being struck by lightning).

Note further that CJD still has no answers for the actual arguments tort reformers make against the Liebeck verdict and the judge's erroneous legal decision to let the case get to a jury. Instead, all their website offers is ignorant snark. The question remains: if CJD is in the right, why can't they simply address the issues? Their reliance on dishonest arguments and misleading non sequiturs seems to be part of their business model.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.