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Zippers and McDonald's hot coffee


Defenders of the appalling McDonald's coffee case such as Susan Saladoff like to point to the fact that McDonald's previously had 700 complaints about the temperature of its coffee, and had paid settlements when it was at fault for injuries for hot coffee, such as when an employee spilled coffee on a customer. Thus, she says, a jury was entitled to inflict punitive damages on the company, because they had notice that their product could cause injury.

With that background, it's interesting to see this Atlantic Wire report: 17,616 men went to the emergency room between 2002 and 2010 for zipper-related penis injuries, nearly 2000 a year. By the Susan Saladoff standard, there should be a gigantic MDL involving every zipper manufacturer facing thousands of claims for punitive damages because pants don't come with warnings to be careful with a zipper. (Recall that even Stella Liebeck's cup of coffee had a warning.) After all, zipper manufacturers surely have notice that zippers "could cause injury," yet continue to subject consumers to a product that could cause injury. According to Saladoff, that alone entitles someone to a jury trial.

Of course, even leaving aside that 700 injuries over all of McDonald's restaurants works out to one in 23 million cups of coffee, "could cause injury" is not the legal standard for liability. The question is one of whether a product is "unreasonably dangerous." Coffee is supposed to be hot. Zippers, even though they cause more injuries than buttons, have some risk associated with them. In neither instance should a court let a product-liability claim ever get to a jury when a user's carelessness with a product imposes injury upon the user.

The vast majority of courts facing hot-coffee claims throw these things out early. I'm not aware of any lawyer with the chutzpah to bring a zipper product liability suit, though the legal theory is the same as that with McDonald's coffee. Yet we see all this propaganda from the trial bar and increasingly from the legal academy that the hot coffee suit was legitimate, and tort reformers are evil for suggesting otherwise. Don't be confused: it's an argument for substantial expansion of the tort system, and at great social cost.


Next time you make a cup of coffee yourself, take the temperature right before you start drinking it. I bet it's not >180 degrees, it's probably more like 140 or 150.

Good argument but still not buying it. The main reason she spilled coffee on herself was because the lid was not sufficiently built to stay on the cup. The coffee poured out onto her legs causing third degree burns. Those prior incidents had all occurred because of this faulty lid design and because McDonald's coffee is kept a few degrees hotter than most coffee that is sold. They didn't respond to the other complaints despite evidence that their was a problem, aka the definition of negligence.

Your zipper comparison doesn't hold up because if the zipper was shown that it was posing an unnecessary risk to the users like they somehow had a design flaw that made it easier to get caught in it, such as the faulty lid did, then you would have an argument.

Until then, this case still continues to be the easy example for people for TORT reform to make twitter arguments without knowing all the facts of the case.

@Max, per the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the optimal brew temperature for coffee is 195-200 degrees (F). If your coffee is 150 right after you brew it, you're definitely doing it wrong.

Brewing at the optimal temperature releases key flavor compounds, ensuring coffee is properly extracted. Next time, try brewing at 195 - you'll taste the difference immediately, and I'm sure you'll agree that properly brewed coffee is well worth the risk of injury.

Just be sure to wait before you take that first sip! Hot liquids can cause burns!

Max: My coffeemaker, because it's a good coffeemaker, brews at a higher temperature than 180 degrees. Do I let it cool before drinking? Yes, but if the coffee isn't brewed at a high temperature, it will taste awful; if it isn't served at that original temperature, it will be too cold by the time I add cold milk and drink it.

Eric White's version of what happened in the Liebeck case is completely fictional. Not even Susan Saladoff claims that the case is about a defective lid. And McDonald's coffee isn't any hotter than Starbucks, Burger King, Wendy's or Dunkin Donuts -- every vendor of hot coffee sells coffee as hot as McDonald's and has been sued for third-degree burns.

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