The McDonalds Coffee Case and the Importance of Accurate Reporting

A mini-documentary and accompanying article posted on the New York Times’ website last week are a timely reminder of the importance of both accurate reporting and of the role our courts play in helping ordinary Americans get the justice they deserve, even when facing off against large, deep-pocketed corporations.

The piece, part of the Times’ “Retro Report” series examining older stories people may only half-remember, focuses on the famous McDonald’s coffee case from the early 1990s. Note that I wrote “famous” not “well known”, because, as the documentary outlines, most of what people think they know about this case is wrong.

In the popular imagination the McDonald’s case is evidence of a personal injury law system run amok: an elderly woman collecting a lottery-sized settlement from McDonald’s after spilling coffee on herself. In many popular versions of the tale she suffered the burns while also driving the car with the coffee cup between her legs. As the documentary outlines the car was parked, the victim was in the passenger’s seat and her burns were severe enough to be life-threatening. The large settlement awarded in the initial trial was reduced by more than 80 percent on appeal. Perhaps most shocking, as the newspaper notes, “she was not one isolated case of scalding, there were hundreds – which amazingly did not move McDonald’s to change their policy on the temperature at which to keep the coffee.”
Some of this ground has been covered before, most notably in the 2011 documentary film Hot Coffee. The victim in the incident passed away in 2004, but the Times quotes her daughter welcoming the renewed attention the story is receiving. “She said this week that she felt a sense of relief to know that more people were getting to know the full story,” the paper notes.

As a Portland personal injury lawyer I heartily commend the Times for this piece of journalism and hope it reminds my readers of the important role our courts play in leveling the playing field between ordinary Americans and large, deep-pocketed companies. Even today these fights are often terribly one-sided, but the legal system offers the best – in some cases the only – chance many people have to obtain justice, enforce accountability and, when the system truly works as it should, ensure that large companies act responsibly.

The New York Times: Storm Still Brews Over Scalding Coffee