Hot Coffee: Perspective – Facts – TRUTH!

Hot Coffee: Perspective – Facts – TRUTH!

The other day while listening to “The Thinking Atheist” podcast (hosted by Seth Andrews), I heard an incredible story about the importance of truth – and the new perspective one gains when the truth is known. By the end of the podcast, my opinion of something I thought I knew to be true had changed completely. There are clear parallels to SE in this story.

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque, NM and spilled it on her lap. If you were around during this time, you no doubt heard this story and the firestorm of opinions surrounding the “exorbitant” amount of money Stella was awarded for her injuries.  The media went into a frenzy and certain lobbying groups pushed for tort reform.  This woman was vilified as a money-hungry klutz who spilled her coffee for financial gain. Let’s face it, on the surface her case seems preposterous. Who doesn’t know that “Hot Coffee”, is, by definition, “Hot” and should be treated as such?  Why would anyone sue McDonald’s for making their coffee too hot?  At the time, I believed the media spin about Mrs. Liebeck and still remember many conversations I had with my conservative friends about this extremely high-profile case. However, once I learned the facts, (i.e. – the truth), I gained a different perspective about this woman and the reality of this case. 

Mrs. Liebeck, who was a passenger in her grandson’s car, was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car moving. She held the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap. The sweatpants she was wearing absorbed the heat of the coffee and kept it against her skin, exacerbating the injury. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from frivolous: she suffered third-degree burns and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere.

The coffee was not just “hot,” but dangerously hot. McDonald’s corporate policy was to serve it at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Furthermore, Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee over the previous 10 years, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

The Jury also awarded Mrs. Liebeck $3 million in punitive damages which were ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. McDonald’s ultimately reached a confidential settlement with Mrs. Liebeck sometime later.

At the time, one juror said, “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.” The jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries, as opposed to the speculation that occurred in the media. Ask anyone who criticizes the case as a “frivolous lawsuit resulting in jackpot justice” if they have done the same. Do they know the facts or are they reacting to their own biased perceptions? Do they know the truth, or the truth as they believe it to be presented by others?

As SE practitioners, we often find ourselves in the unique position of introducing new evidence (i.e. – “truths”) to our Interlocutors. This evidence can be critical in helping people gain fresh perspectives about reality. Many of the people we question have firmly-entrenched beliefs that were planted during their upbringing.  Public perception can be the enemy of truth. Profound media bombardment and proximity to others with false beliefs often make the examination of one’s belief even more difficult. Our job as SE practitioners is to help others determine what is true. In doing so, we have the potential to change lives for the better. Sadly, lies, dis-information, and skewed perceptions are enemies we must meet head-on.

I’ve been practicing SE for a little over a year now, primarily with family and friends.  Recently, my 17-year-old autistic son Sean came to a belief position and couldn’t wait to tell me about it.

Two family acquaintences recently died in a horrible motorcycle accident. After hearing what happened, Sean came to a belief based on limited evidence and engaged me in a conversation which went like this:

“Dad, I think Motorcycles should be outlawed.” Instead of just saying ok and moving on, I thought about his truth claim.  To Sean, coming to this belief was simple. If you ride motorcycles, you are going to die.  Being autistic, his critical thinking skills are limited and easily fooled. With repetition and good logic, he has recently shown an interest in grasping new realities, so I thought I’d try a bit of SE with him.

“Sean, why do you think motorcycles are bad and should be outlawed?”

He replied, “I’ve heard several stories of people getting killed on motorcycles and I think they are bad and should be outlawed.”

I challenged his belief, “Do people die while driving cars?”


“Should we outlaw cars?”

“No,” he said pensively. I pressed him further.

“I’m curious, is there any possible good in motorcycles?”  He thought for a moment, and then answered in the negative.  “Did you know some people say they really like the way it feels to ride on a motorcycle?  Generally, riding on a motorcycle gives people a sense of freedom. Also, many people ride motorcycles because they can go a long way on a single tank of gas.  Did you know there was many positive things about motorcycles and there are millions of people who enjoy riding them?”  Again, he replied, “No.”

There was a long, thoughtful pause in the conversation. Finally, “Dad, I think people should be more careful when they ride motorcycles.”  Another long pause. “Dad, I don’t think motorcycles should be outlawed anymore.”

In today’s world, we are all faced with increasingly deceptive AI technology, “fake news”, partisan politics, and entrenched ideologies. These often shape our perception of reality. Determining what is real is harder than ever.  We all need to be more diligent in obtaining truth and gaining perspective. For me, this is a personal challenge. 

I was once told by a pro bass fisherman, “Do you know why big fish are big? It’s because they know how to stay alive.” Long-held and false beliefs are much like these big fish, they like to stick around for a long time.  I think as SE practitioners, we need to go fishing and reel in a few whoppers.

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