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OUT ON A LIMB: Moral of hot coffee story reverses on itself

Atop of this Retro Report was a can’t-turn-away headline: 'Scalded by coffee, then news media'

In this day and age of new media, multi media, social media, traditional media (Hi there!), web sites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, I have a hard time tracking down where I first got onto something.

You get started on one thing and before you know it, 10 minutes is up.

Back in my Communications Studies days at Simon Fraser University I learned the notion that when consuming media, psychologically – sometimes physiologically – you feel like you’re experiencing, if not the actual activity, then something different from what you are actually doing.

Which is sitting in a chair staring at a glowing screen.

Time passes and you’ve burned a quarter of an hour or more of your life away.  but you feel like you’ve meandered down a long path to arrive at somewhere you’ve never been before.

The other day I arrived at the New York Times. Not physically, of course.

But there I was looking at the headline of a feature called Retro Report. Atop of this Retro Report was a can’t-turn-away headline: “Scalded by coffee, then news media.”

It was a look back on the seminal story of Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque, New Mexico, septuagenarian, who won $2.9 million from McDonald’s Corporation when she spilled hot coffee on her lap.

It became a lightning rod for everything that is wrong with the American judicial system and, by extension, both what is wrong with the Canadian system and what is right with it, depending on whether you’re feeling smug or cynical at that particular moment.

As the Times said, Stella Liebeck became a poster girl for frivolous lawsuits in the U.S. The story went viral before the Internet itself had gone viral.

But something happened to the story the further around the world it went. The story got bigger but the article reporting it got smaller. It became a sound bite. News editors tossed out the window not only unnecessary verbiage but also...a lot of the facts.

Stella Liebeck was mocked and painted as a shyster while – here’s a real switch –a massive multinational corporation was seen as the victim. Except, the story isn’t quite what everybody thought it was. Liebeck didn’t get $2.9 million, the punitive damages were reduced to about $500,000. Still a lot but it was a jury that awarded the original damages. The trial judge reduced them. Liebeck was frequently reported as driving with hot coffee on her lap. She wasn’t. She was a passenger. And she received scalding to 23 per cent of her body, sending her into shock and necessitating a visit to emergency. This was a little old lady.

So the moral of this story is that make sure you get the facts straight and, I guess, don’t trust the media to give them to you. And the McDonald’s hot coffee story set the pattern for what can happen to the facts when a story catches like a grass fire in Alberta. The truth gets burned. So, the next time your inbox or Facebook page is forwarded another juicy story, retain a little of that good old time skepticism.