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It's treated as a classic example of judicial overreach and greed: A woman, driving in her car while holding McDonald's coffee between her legs, spills some of the coffee on herself. Inflicted with some minor burns, she sues McDonald's, as if she shouldn't have known that coffee is hot and driving with it in your hand or legs is dangerous. And then she ultimately wins millions of dollars from the fast food chain — becoming rich due to a dumb mistake that was all on her.
Only this is all wrong.
In a new segment of Adam Ruins Everything, host Adam Conover explains that basically everything people think they know about the McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit is false. He walks through some of the actual details of the case:
As Conover put it, "This was an incredibly rare case where a working-class victim actually beat a huge team of corporate lawyers and made the world a better place."
So how did the public's view of this case get so warped? According to Conover, lawyers spent years running a disinformation campaign, which much of the media bought into, holding up the McDonald's coffee lawsuit as an example of a supposed epidemic of frivolous lawsuits.
"The last several decades, large corporations afraid of being sued for making unsafe products created front groups like Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse to turn public opinion against lawsuits," University of Washington professor Michael McCann told Conover. But "the best social science evidence shows that the number of personal injury lawsuits in recent decades has declined, and the median payout is only $55,000."
The lesson here: There are many problems with our justice system, from vast racial disparities to a bail system that excessively punishes the poor. But the McDonald's hot coffee case isn't one of those problems.