Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Pastor Glen over at Incarnatus Est links to a new offering out of Ft. Wayne called Socratic Stammtisch. The good Pastor wonders, "What is a stammtisch? I am sure it is dreadfully important but I haven't a clue."

Stammtisch is "table talk" in action. Informal conversation amongst friends: coffee talk. It's often used as a way for students learning to speak German to be able to hone their skills.

Speaking of "coffee talk", when I headed over to Socratic Stammitsch, there was an amusing post on the death of Common Sense. One thing that struck me, however, was this line:

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

It's surprising that the mythology around this event (the woman in New Mexico was awarded $3,000,000 in her lawsuit against McDonald's after she spilled the coffee in her lap) lives on. There are indeed cases (like the all too real case where a home invader sues a homeowner when he gets injured "on the job" as it were) where judge and jury had clearly checked their brains at the door. The McDonald's case was not one of them.

The woman in question (Mrs. Liebeck) had purchased a cup of coffee in a drive-through McDonalds, after which she placed it in her lap, and spilled it when she attempted to doctor it up with cream and sugar (which actually was her real mistake!) Hot coffee sloshed all over her inner thighs, genitals and rump.

Now, have you assumed, Gentle Reader, that Mrs. Liebeck was driving the car? I didn't say she was. Yet my paragraph above lets you assume that she was, and in fact, most news accounts of the story were written in similar fashion to how I presented it.

It is very important to note that Mrs. Liebeck was NOT driving the car. She didn't spill it while driving; she wasn't fumbling with the gear shift or the brake, or the steering wheel. And, furthermore, the car was stopped when she spilled the coffee.

Now, for most people, the story ends right there: "What a dolt!," they'll say. Well, dolt or not, Mrs.Liebeck was in pain, so her grandson (who was driving the car) took her to the emergency room. As it turned out, she had 3rd degree burns over 6% of her body, and was hospitalized for eight days.

Here is the interesting part: "hot coffee" does not cause 3rd degree burns. 3rd degree burns can only be caused by really, really f-----g HOT coffee. The difference, as it turns out, between 1st degree and 3rd degree is not two degrees, but 40 degrees.

Our avergae coffee maker at home dispenses our morning joe at F140 degrees. Liquid at that temperature will sure hurt, and will cause 1st degree burns. But to get 3rd degree burns, the coffee has to be at least F180 degrees.

So here is the legal part. This case was not about "common sense" -- in fact, Mrs. Liebeck was the first to admit that putting the coiffe in her lap was dumb. The question is what reasonable expectation do consumers have about food they are served? In this case, "common sense" says that "hot coffee" should be in a restaurant as it is at home, or at least within a reasonble (i.e., non-harmful) range.

If the coffee is not within a reasonable range, the next question is, to what extent (if any) is the restaurant resonsible for it? That depends largely on whether or not the restaurant knew that its coffee was substantially hotter that people's normal coffee, and whether or not the restaurant knew how dangerous that temperature was. As it turned out, McDonalds knew both of these things: 1) that the coffee they served was far hotter (40 to 50 degrees) than people brewed in their own homes, and 2) that coffee at the temperature they served would cause 3rd degree burns if it came into contact with the skin.

McDonalds had had (if memory seves) not one, not two, not three, but six different civil actions filed against it for this very same problem in the state of New Mexico alone. Nationwide, there had been hundreds. And still they served their coffee at 180-190 degrees.

Mrs. Liebeck did not, at first, file suit. She simply wrote to McDonalds an asked them to help with her medical bills. As it turns out she had to have massive skin grafts done on her legs. McDonalds at first did not even do her the courtesy of replying.

To make a long story short, the jury didn't award Mrs. Libeck $3,000,000 in order to account for her pain and suffering, they did it to punish McDonalds for willfully ignoring a dangerous situation. And, in the end, the award was eventually reduced to something in the neighborhood of $250,000, a sum which (after her lawyer's fees and medical bills) amounted to nearly nothing for Mrs. Liebeck.

In the end, when I read something like this:

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

it takes the fun out of the rest of the piece. She "spilled a little in her lap"??? The woman's injuries were so severe that if she had been of "child-bearing years", she likely would have lost that ability. She certainly would have lost the ability to deliver the child normally. The perineum gets massively stretched during delivery, but since burned skin loses its ability to stretch, well...you see.

Now, why am I rehashing something so old as this? Well, because it showed up in the post over at Socratic Stammtisch, that's why...and because I'm stuck on a latin translation and I needed something else to think about for a little while.

I should note that Socrates (Pr. D) did not write this article, and that furthermore, he says he's not sure if he agrees with the article 100%. Good. Let's hope he doesn't agree with that part.
posted by Kepler at 15:57 |


At 10/11/2006 02:57:00 AM, Blogger solarblogger

Good on you for sharing that one.

A friend's mother was telling me about some instructions her husband received with a German cuckoo clock. Each direction began with "You will", as in "You will do this." At the end, it actually said, "If the clock doesn't work, it is because you did something wrong."

So that piece on Common Sense was really introducing you to German culture. If you want to really sound German in the table talk, start blaming people.


At 10/11/2006 09:57:00 PM, Blogger chris j pluger

It's sad that that woman got hurt. I've never had 3rd degree burns anywhere on my body, much less ... ahem. I'm sure if I did, I would appreciate any financial help that any large corporation was willing to offer me, be it $250K or $3 mil or somewhere in between.

One place I have to quibble a bit, though, is your opinion about the serving temperature of coffee. I think that 140F is pretty cool, especially for a coffee that's going to be toted around in your car for a while. You want it to stay hot for a while, not start out lukewarm and get unpalatably cold in minutes.

From what I've read, 180F is about standard temperature for "fresh-brewed" coffee (which, by definition, had to have started out at 212F in order to even get brewed through a drip maker in the first place). Just because a person drinks lukewarm coffee at home doesn't mean they should expect it lukearm at a restaurant, too. I mean, most home espresso is crap, but does that mean we should expect crap when we go out?

I'm not saying McDonalds shouldn't have helped her with her expenses, or even awarded her some pain-and-suffering compensation. I also think the "HOT coffee" signs in restaurants are a good thing. I just don't think the entire coffee drinking world should be punished with undrinkably cold coffee just because someone who doesn't know the temperature at which coffee should be served burns themselves on it.

Just my two cents. Thanks for the blog! It's good to read the words of other thinking people.

On a completely unrelated note, what does the "SM(B)C" part of ROTFLMBOSM(B)C!!!! stand for?


At 10/12/2006 10:36:00 AM, Blogger Kepler

Spilling My (Black) Coffee

And, re: your other comment, drive by comments are most welcome on my site.


At 10/12/2006 05:01:00 PM, Blogger chris j pluger

I'm glad it means that. My internet-savvy students, bless their innocent little hearts, were suggesting quite a bit more creatively risque possibilities.


At 10/14/2006 02:45:00 PM, Blogger solarblogger

And you aren't sharing them with us?


Track with co.mments