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?