The Parable of the Paint Can: The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case as a Divining Rod for Political Leanings

Can a tale of spilled paint as a parable of the McDonald's hot coffee case reveal a person's political ideology?

Dried green paint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Earlier this week, there was a discussion on frivolous law suits over on Modest Money. Of course, the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case came up. The topic always recalls fond(?) memories of my week at the American Legion’s Boy’s State program, or as my friends called it, the Corrupt Democratic Regime (we may have been a little intellectually snobbish at the time).

When you take a group of boys who have been reading authors such as Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, and Machiavelli and put them in a camp designed to instill civic virtues and you are going to get rebellion such as that. In fact, the experience served mostly to reinforce our beliefs. Watching a politician justify his stance on a contentious issue based on his father telling him what to believe as a boy (true story), being chased by a mob for refusing to sign a petition (another true story, or rather the follow-up when the mob bought that ridiculous reasoning) did little ingratiate myself to the political process.

As I’ve aged, my opinions have mellowed considerably. I’m not so sure I’m right about everything as I once was and less likely to see conspiracy around every corner.

But I did learn some valuable lessons during my week, aside from the power of groupthink! In particular, I learned the parable of the paint can. More importantly, I learned quite accidentally, its power to discern one’s political leanings.

The Parable of the Paint Can

There once was a man who decided to repaint his house. While walking down the paint isle of the hardware store, he sees one brand that advertised that its paint lasted longer than other brands. He decides to purchase that brand. He takes it home, climbs up the ladder and starts painting. He immediately knocks over the can of paint and spills it all over himself.

What the paint advertisement didn’t say was that the durability comes from a higher than normal concentration of a caustic chemical. The paint company had received complaints from burns in the past but had determined that the benefit outweighed the gain. From spilling an entire gallon of paint on himself, the man receives severe chemical burns.

Is the paint company liable for to pay for the injuries the man sustained from the burns from spilling paint on himself?

When the lawyer who presented this to us asked this question, the majority of hands went up voting, yes, the paint company was.

McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

What should be obvious to anyone who has taken time to read about Liebeck v McDonald’s, that the parable of the paint can is actually about the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. Without knowing the facts of the case, the immediate reaction is the case was frivolous. In fact, when the lawyer started his presentation, he asked for a vote on whether McDonald’s was at fault and unanimously the answer was no.

The facts of the case that McDonald’s had decided that 180 degrees, a temperature well above the point which a hot liquid will burn skin, was the optimum temperature for taste, instead of the standard 135 non-scalding degrees of most coffee makers.

They had also received several hundred complaints regarding burns over the previous decade.

Also, contrary to popular misconception, the woman was not driving when she spilled the coffee. She was a passenger of a vehicle that had pulled over in the parking lot to allow her to add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car was not moving at all at the time.

How this all relates to political leanings

The central issue I see relating to the McDonald’s case is that of the role of personal responsibility. What is the limit of personal responsibility before another party’s role outweighs your own? Where does the line lay between being careful when handling a hot object and producing a product that is known to be hazardous?

The answer depends on your political ideology. The dividing line of personal responsibility tends to move along the spectrum of political ideology. It’s not a 1:1 relationship, and I’m sure there are conservatives that agree with the ruling and liberals that disagree. But at the end of the day, the case has served as a useful tool to gauge political leanings.

Conservatives tend to put more onus on personal responsibility. Liberals lean towards more shared responsibility. This debate plays out every day on the topics of education, welfare, unemployment, and even taxes.

On that day 15 years ago, I stood in the minority that still felt that McDonald’s was not responsible for a woman spilling coffee on herself. My best friend, a deep thinker and man whose opinion I respect immensely, was swayed by the parable. I didn’t understand it at the time. But as we matured, definite differences in our ideologies became apparent. He has voted Democrat in every Presidential election since we turned 18. Meanwhile, my views are a little further to the right.

This isn’t to say that he is a raging socialist. When quizzed on our political beliefs once, he fell staunchly in the middle of the liberal side of the spectrum. Meanwhile, I’m hardly the libertarian, falling just right of center.

While I don’t disagree with him on every issue of governance and the role of government, when the topic boils down to how much responsibility an individual has in a situation, I always fall to the right of him.

I first realized all this, if only in the tiniest bit, on that sunny day on the campus of Ryder University while at NJ Boy’s State. And every time I’ve applied this test to anyone else since, I’ve been able to good a basic feel for their political leanings.

What do you believe? Was McDonald’s or the fictional paint company at fault? Do you agree that the case serves as a good test of a person’s political ideology?


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43 thoughts on “The Parable of the Paint Can: The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case as a Divining Rod for Political Leanings

  1. Huh. I knew as soon as I saw the tweet how the political ideologies would supposedly fall. Except I and everyone I know seem to be the exceptions to that rule. I am pretty solidly liberal, as are the majority of my friends. All of us feel that the McDonalds suit didn’t ask enough responsibility of the woman involved.

    Re: the paint can analogy – yes I believe the company should be liable. Paint doesn’t normally contain caustic chemicals that will severely burn your skin. I’ve painted my house inside and out and gotten plenty of paint on myself. Never had to go to the hospital for it. So there is no expectation that spilling paint will cause injury. In that case, I believe the paint company had a responsibility to issue a warning. Also in this case the man was using the paint as it was intended to be used and the spill was accidental.

    McDonalds? Coffee is hot. You can’t guarantee the temperature of coffee is always going to be safe, especially when the company has ALSO gotten complaints that the drink cools down too fast and is then unpleasant to drink. The woman in question put a hot cup of coffee between her legs, took off the lid to add whatever she was adding, and began to drive away. IMO, in this case the woman has to accept that she “used” the cup of coffee in an unsafe manner, in a way it wasn’t expected to be used – and therefore bears at the very least some of the responsibility for burning herself.

    I know a whole lot of people disagree with me, but I still find the McDonald’s lawsuit to be a really bad one.

    • Haha! I knew there had to be liberals out there with their head screwed on straight! πŸ˜‰

      Yes, the paint can analogy does fall a little flat, although paint DOES normally cause caustic chemicals, just usually not in high enough concentrations to cause burns.

      The woman was actually a passenger and the car was stopped, but at the end of the day, putting a Styrofoam cup between your legs isn’t the safest maneuver in the world, even if you aren’t trying to remove the lid!

  2. I see this as an illustration about why you need to get all the facts. I’m much more sympathetic to the lady in the coffee case after getting the facts. I’m not 100% on her side, but more willing to say that there is some shared liability here. McDonald’s for excessively heating the coffee and the lady for user error.

    Getting all the facts is one of the hardest things to do because most news outlets and journalists gloss over all the boring details in favor of sensationalism. Some days this drives me crazy.

  3. Two words come to mind: Due diligence.

    Now, maybe in today’s society were much more aware of chemicals in everything we purchase. Perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, we just didn’t care or didn’t know. So, as for the parable about the man who was chemically burned by the longer-lasting paint, perhaps the thinking is he should have thought about why it’s more durable. As for the coffee, didn’t she have it between her legs in a car, or something? Driving with liquid between your legs isn’t a good idea no matter what the temperature.

    • Saved you from the spam filter.

      As a society, we seem to quick to believe marketing claims. Our paint lasts longer! Our coffee tastes better! Our gas gives you better mileage!

      • But in America, we are not expected to be “experts” in any area other than our own profession. We are NOT expected to know what CAN be known, only what a producer MAKES known. We truly are not expected to read the MSDS on the paint–however, we ARE expected to read the label on the paint can. There may come a time when we should expect that paint will cause burns, but that time is not now. However, the time IS now that coffee is hot–the degree to how hot it “should” be is purely subjective. Even at the “standard” temperature of use, the lady would still have had a mighty unpleasant experience when the coffee spilled.

        • The fact that a gallon of paint doesn’t generally cause burns is where that parable generally falls down.
          While we aren’t expected to be experts in any given field, I do think we should all be expected to apply common sense. I remember an incident a few years ago where my brother spilled gasoline on himself. Did you know that gasoline on exposed skin can burn? We didn’t. But we did know that gasoline is a dangerous substance and needed to be cleaned up. But just because he experienced some minor burns doesn’t mean he should have sued the gas station for not warning him that it could burn his skin.

  4. I have a hard time believe McD actually pays attention to the quality of its coffee! I don’t drink coffee but have often heard it is the worst. As per whose fault it is, the idiots who can’t hold a cup or a can of paint properly. But both companies should put a warning so people are more careful. Like slippery floor, or fresh paint, or caution hot… I have been handling acids around the house lately, obviously I don’t carry them like it is a bucket of water. It doesn’t say so on the package but it’s common sense.
    Pauline recently posted..Installing a water pump: costs and tutorialMy Profile

    • McDonald’s coffee isn’t my first choice, or my 10th. But it isn’t the worst. That honor would have to go to Sonic’s Drive-In.

      What drives me a little crazy with the Liebeck case is that the cup DID say “CAUTION CONTENTS HOT” but the jury decided that the warning wasn’t placed in a way to make people take it seriously!

  5. I couldn’t help but leave a comment because I noticed you were a Boys State alum. I know exactly what you mean by intellectually snobbish! We were all the same. The guys in my town ended up mostly having regular jobs but all took the bar and ran our own law firm, except we made regular hits on the guys in public office, including the governor. That was the most entertaining exercise in a fictional government ever. And you know what? I learned so much from it! Take care and I’ll be stopping by again to read more. Thanks
    Scott @Youthful Investor recently posted..How Do I Open an Online Brokerage Account?My Profile

    • It was so fun to watch how seriously everybody took it! I put through a measure to found a park in an empty dorm room then went on strike and became “homeless” and started sleeping in the “park” Everybody was scratching their heads and asking if I could do that!

  6. What about corporate responsibility? Don’t you folks think they’re people, too? πŸ™‚ Apparently McD’s knew that their coffee, made at 185 or whatever, was unsafe to drink for 20 minutes after poured. And Ms. Liebeck was complaint number…750(?) about the temperature that the coffee was brewed at. So it’s not like they were unaware that this was too hot for consumption and was injuring customers.

    “Contents hot” is not the same as “This is unsafe to drink for 20 minutes!”..Ms. Liebeck, in my opinion, caught McD’s in the wrong for failing to give adequate notice. User error for spilling coffee on yourself should not be third degree burns in your groin. (Ugh, I’ve seen the pictures.) While she could have reasonably expected that the coffee would be hot, and that by putting it between her legs she was at least somewhat likely to spill on herself, do you think that she could have ever imagined the extent of the injuries it would cause?

    On the other hand, do you think that McD’s knew the risks involved? Probably, at least after 750 complaints.
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    • Hey, I signed the Move to Amend Petition! I thought that Supreme Court decision was pretty dumb.

      I feel that while a third degree burn may not have been reasonably expected, a burn in general should have been and greater caution used.

      I’m not saying that McDonald’s had no culpability but is merely warning that something is dangerous instead of very dangerous worth half a million dollars?

      • You know that’s not what she asked for or received, right? (They never disclosed how much she actually walked away with, but I think it was something like 2-3x the cost of her medical bills…)

        That’s the amount that the jury found McD’s liable for. There is a lot to be said in this case for runaway juries, regardless of whether you think the suit has any merit And they came up with the number based on one day’s worth of coffee sales or something.
        Sara recently posted..Wedding Wednesday – we’re getting hitched!My Profile

        • I agree with you about runaway juries. I recall that she was originally only after payment of her medical bills, to the tune of $20,000. The original award was something like a million and brought down on appeal.

  7. I loved your analysis of this topic. It was very insightful of you to connect that to political leanings too. I have to say it was pretty accurate for me as I believe that Mcdonald’s wasn’t responsible and I also lean pretty far to the right.
    Nick @ recently posted..Losing the Freshman 15My Profile

  8. According to what my business law professor said they are. His example was a bag boy putting too many items in a bag, including mayo. The shopper goes home and the bag breaks because it was poorly packed. The glass jar of mayo breaks and glass shatters everywhere. As it breaks a child runs through the room slips and skids across the floor face first having glass shards cut their face. Is the grocery company responsible?
    According to my professor yes. So I suppose that McDonald should be.
    As for the paint, if they had labels on them requiring certain safety measure I’d say no. Which McDonalds now has on their coffee cups.
    Justin@TheFrugalPath recently posted..Profit From Your Passion: It’s not always possible.My Profile

    • Somehow I think legal responsibility and moral responsibly have gotten disconnected somewhere along the line. What happens if, instead of the bagger overloading the bag, it is simply defective? They are mass-produced by the millions will pretty much no quality control. I’ve had dozens of bags break. There could have been a sharp object in the trunk to poke a hole in the bag. Any number of things outside the grocery store’s control could have the same result.
      MCDonalds had the safety lablel then too. πŸ™‚

      • Ha, the label being added after her case it must have been part of the myth surrounding the McDonald’s coffee lady.
        You’re right. I thought that while my professor’s scenario was interesting, but I didn’t really believe that I would sue over something like it. How far does a company’s responsibility extend?
        It’s pretty easy to tell when a bag is overloaded and just ask for fewer items in the bag. People should take responsibilities for their actions rather than trying to make a company pay for them.
        Justin@TheFrugalPath recently posted..My Financial Path Is Like I-75: Detroit to FloridaMy Profile

        • Apparently, the jury felt the warning wasn’t large or obvious enough. Because the fact that fresh coffee might be hot is apparently not that obvious.

      • So….what if the parent had packed the bag that held the jar that broke that caused the mayo… gee, I feel like ‘The House That Jack Built.’ (A lot of places have you packing your own bag, especially when you go through the self-checkout line.)
        Would the professor still argue that the company is liable?

        I don’t quite see the comparison. Paint isn’t expected to cause burns, even in quantity. Coffee, on the other hand, is expected to be served hot. Can you imagine the fuss MickeyD’s would have if its coffee were lukewarm, or even worse, cold?

        Personal responsibility is still important. We’re expected to act like thinking, intelligent people. Doesn’t that also mean accepting that sometimes unfortunate accidents occur, instead of seeing them as deliberate instances of neglect? (Sometimes they are, true — but many times they’re not.)

        I still wonder if the lawsuits would be filed quiiiiite so quickly if the defendant, instead of a large corporation with those lovely deep pockets, was a little old lady on Social Security and not much else.

  9. I believe in individual responsibility and consequences. With that said I believe the company has to produce a product within the confines of the law. If they do so and the buyer chooses to use the vendors product then the fault is the buyers. If the vendor or manufacturer disobeys the law and lies to the buyer then the fault is no longer the buyers. If the law is flawed it can be amended. To me this is black and white. I’ve enjoyed some good discussions like this. Like you, some of my friends don’t see things as black and white and lean more on the liberal side.
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  11. Well, I don’t know about generalizing, but it doesn’t serve as an indicator of my own political ideology. I think it’s also important to have all the facts of the case before deciding. Knowing what you said here, I know think the McDonald’s label should say something like: “Caution! So hot it will burn your skin!” instead of the laughable contents are hot.
    Jackie recently posted..Open an IRA for $1My Profile

    • I think the reason that the label is laughable isn’t so much an issue of inadequacy. It’s laughable because it should be a matter of common sense. Kind of like when the bag of peanuts needs to have a warning that says: Contains Peanuts.

    • I’d relish the opportunity. As I mentioned in the post, I don’t assume anymore that I am always right and look forward to hearing different viewpoints.

  12. Wow 180 degrees vs 135 is a big difference. If I had heard that, I’d say McDonald’s was to blame. It sucks getting burned. The water dispenser at my office is doubtfully anywhere near as hot as 180, and it hurts like a — whenever the hot water splashes onto my hands when I’m filling up my mug. There will always be people who sue companies for their own personal carelessness, but companies shouldn’t put their customers in danger of getting hurt.

    • But isn’t that the point? Hot liquids burn.

      A lot is made about the 700+ complaints that McDonalds received over the decade preceding the case. But if they sold just 10,000 cups per day (which seems an overly conservative number), that means your odds of getting hurt are at .002%. At what point should you consider something an acceptable risk?

  13. I tend to be liberal on many topics like social issues and conservative on financial issues and taxes. I can usually see both sides of most stories.

    I think the lady was fully responsible for spilling her coffee. Otherwise where does it end? Is McDonalds responsible for people who eat three Big Macs a day and die of a heart attack? Ultimately, coffee is hot. Don’t spill it. If you do, don’t blame anyone other than yourself. Drink iced tea and it wouldn’t be a problem at all!
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  17. I’ve heard about this interesting news. Although there is a precaution and warning, the court still decided to come up with a verdict that can be remembered in law history. I think it’s a matter of personal responsibility to safety and avoid doing things that can risks your health.
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    • If I ever open a place that serves coffee, I’m going to make sure that the warning label reaches from top to bottom of the cup.

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