Yesterday I attended an interesting talk by one of my new colleagues at UQ, Blake McKimmie. Blake is a social psychologist interested in the impact of psychological factors on the legal system. I learned a bit about the Australian legal system. It appears to be more similar to the one in the U.K. than the one in the States. And only the State of Queensland requires unanimous jury decisions. In the other states, a simple majority is required for most kinds of cases. I was also surprised to learn more about the infamous McDonald's coffee case. You know the story: in 1994 an old lady was burned by a cup of coffee she bought in the drive-thru. The U.S. jury in that case awarded her $2.9 million, although that was reduced to $640,000 by the trial judge, and even settled for less than that in the end. It is often brought up as a horrendous example of frivolous litigation, and did a lot to damage the reputation of the legal system. But here are some additional facts that Blake mentioned in his talk:
- All McDonald's coffee at the time of that incident was served at about 190 degrees F (88 degrees C), whereas most other restaurants never served coffee hotter than 160.
- The woman spent 8 days in the hospital and required skin grafts for the 3rd-degree burns she received covering 6% of her body, including her legs and groin region.
- McDonald's had received over 700 complaints about its hot coffee and resulting burns BEFORE this case, but had always settled such complaints out-of-court without adjusting the temperature of the coffee.
- The reason given by the jury members for awarding the large amount was that $2.9 million was equivalent to two days' worth of coffee sales for McDonald's in the U.S., and such an amount would send a message to McDonald's that it needed to deal with the problem once and for all.
- After this case, McDonald's indeed lowered the temperature of its coffee to no more than 160 degrees F, and added warnings to the cups.
I don't remember hearing any of this back in the day. Isn't it interesting how what we do hear (via the news) can affect our attitudes about things for such a long time, even if they are based on incomplete information? Or should I say, isn't it scary?