Thursday, August 21, 2003

2. McCoffee lawsuit stirs up a brew

Inevitably every water-cooler discussion on lawsuits, especially frivolous lawsuits, end up in a discussion, or joke, about the woman who was awarded a couple million dollars after spilling hot coffee on her lap. The lawsuit gained national attention, and for many, cast doubts about the quality of our legal system. Currently, businesses and the insurance industry use this case as an example for the need of liability limits. The problem is that many don't know the actual facts of the case, and that, in reality, the decision was a sound one.

McDonald's sells about $1.3 million dollars worth of coffee each day. For years McDonald's knew they had a problem with the way they prepared and sold their coffee. In truth, people who had burned themselves on McDonald's coffee had filed more than 700 claims between 1982-1992. However, based on consultants advice for optimal taste, McDonald's decided to keep their coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit (by comparison, most restaurants keep their coffee at 135-140 degrees). In addition, McDonalds' own quality assurance manager testified that McDonald's knew that food substances served at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit were capable of producing third degree burns. With this information, McDonald's made no effort to lower holding temperatures or warn their customers.

Recalling the case, a 79 year-old woman named Stella Liebeck was burned when riding in the backseat of her grandson's car as she opened the lid of her coffee to add cream and sugar. She was not driving, nor was the car in motion. The coffee spilled and inflicted third degree burns on 6 percent of her body. She was hospitalized for eight days, undergoing a skin graft and debridement treatments. For this, she asked McDonald's for $20,000 to cover hospital expenses and eight days worth of her daughter's salary- who took the time off to care for her. McDonald's offered $800.

Lieback subsequently sued and won the case against McDonald's. Expert testimony from the trial stated that substances at 180 degrees or higher would cause third degree burns in two to seven seconds. She was awarded over 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages. She also received $160,000 in compensatory damages, after the jury reduced the damages by 20 percent because they found her at fault for spilling the coffee. On appeal, the judge lowered punitive damages to $480,000, for a total award of $640,000- a bit shy of the "couple million" or so that is usually quoted. The case finally came to an end when Lieback and McDonald's, unbeknownst to the public, entered into an undisclosed settlement agreement.

From the beginning we realize that McDonald's was fully aware that its coffee was capable of inflicting third degree burns on its customers. With this information they sought neither to lower the holding temperature nor provide a warning label. With the sale of approximately one billion cups of coffee per year, it doesn't take an intellect to realize that some of these people were going to spill their coffee. And that with each spill existed the possibility that someone would be burned. To prove it, they had 700 claims filed to that fact.

In a society that has become accustom to lawsuits engaging the smallest offense or accident, it's easy to assume that this case is about unaccountability. The argument of many is, of course, that it was her fault for spilling the coffee. However, statistics would indicate, that some customers were going to spill their coffee- especially when so many are purchased "on the go." The deplorable aspect of this case is that it appears that McDonald's selected risk management over customer safety. One might speculate that McDonald's found it more economical to pay the small settlements rather than risk losing "optimal taste", and hence market share.

When considering responsibility, it's important to remember that there are differences between corporate knowledge, corporate action and customer fault. There are also differences in the stories that we are told. Of this, Eldred Jones fittingly wrote, "Legends die hard in the popular mind, while facts tend to languish in books."

Thursday, August 7, 2003

1. Every life is worth our efforts

The inspiration of The Starfish Poem is easily understood- that one needs not to save the world in order to make a difference or perhaps even more simply stated- "every little bit matters." However, from an ethical, anthropocentric perspective it could mean that every individual life matters, at least to that individual. The poem begins with a wise man walking along the beach and noticing a young man "reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean." It continues:

As he got closer he called out,
"Good morning! What are you doing?"
The young man paused,
looked up and replied,
"Throwing starfish in the ocean."
I guess I should have asked,
why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?"
"The sun is up and the tide is going out.
And if I don't throw them in they'll die."
"But, young man, don't you realize that
there are miles and miles of beach
and starfish all along it.
You can't possibly make a difference!"
The young man listened politely.
Then bent down, picked up another starfish
and threw it into the sea,
past the breaking waves and said-
"It made a difference for that one."

Probing deeper into the ethical side of this poem, that every individual life matters, draws into question one of America's favorite family activities- visiting the zoo. While zoos have implemented many commendable and credible educational programs, they, by in large, remain as entertainment and, harshly stated, as a form of imprisonment for the animals they harbor.

Educationally, zoos detail animal natural habitats, social characteristics and where the animals are naturally found. In addition, zoos have promoted to protect endangered species with their rescue and breeding programs. Zoos also strive to inform the public as to the sensitivity of many species in relation to human activity- such as rainforest destruction and human overpopulation. These are important issues that the general public rarely thinks about except when visiting the zoos.

Zoos have made great progress in animal living conditions, as best they can, by creating a living environment similar to what these animals may have encountered in the wild. However, many remain in very confined spaces or cages. And while many have had their habitats recreated, they still don't get to experience life as they would in the wild. They don't have to search for there own food. They don't have the social environment that for many species exists naturally in the wild. They don't have reproductive freedom. Captivity acts against all their natural instincts. In the popular movie, Jurassic Park, the scientist notes upon seeing a dinosaur being fed a goat, "They don't want to be fed, they want to hunt."

The argument against this, of course, is that they are well provided for, they live a long time and that they live without the danger of being hurt or killed. True as this may be, are they really living? What is life without the experiences that are instinctual to it- even if those experiences are not always favorable? Another argument is that these animals are suffering for the well being of their species. By educating humans, they may make things better for their relatives, that their individual sacrifice will save the rainforest and make humans more responsible. As admirable of a case that this might be, most regard the zoo as entertainment- a place to take the kids on a nice summer day.

Whether or not zoos do more good than harm is not necessarily the question. It is of the ethical belief that every individual matters, as suggested in The Starfish Poem, that we are forced to conclude that zoos clearly infringe on this poetic theme. Zoos, and society's support of them, have decided that it doesn't matter to that one.