The Deceived Majority — A Collective False Witness

Hot Coffee, false witness, and the critical Christiansimon says

By Dr. Joel McDurmon

The Stella Liebeck case has become the stuff of legend. You remember the case, right? Some lady bought coffee at the McDonalds drive-thru, took off around the corner, spilled the coffee and burned herself. Despite her own obvious irresponsibility, she saw the opportunity to cash in at the multi-billion dollar corporate giant’s expense—she sued McDonald’s. A jury—obviously wishing to stick it to a big corporation—awarded the woman $2.9 million. Remember all this?

occupy-4The media went crazy. The story was the stuff of international headlines. It was parodied with Kramer on Seinfeld. Jay Leno made jokes. Legislators leveraged it. To this day, country singers are still singing about it: “spill a cup of coffee / make a million dollars.”pagan power

Problem is, hardly any of this is true. Even worse, hardly any of the truth was reported to the general public, until now anyway (almost 20 years later). The recent critical reviews of this story provide valuable lessons for communication, critical thinking, suspension of judgment, and the need for biblical law.

The New York Times has produced a “Retro Report” on the case. I encourage you to watch the video. It’s worth 12 minutes of your time.

The real facts of the case are not like I introduced above, but rather these:

  1. The woman was not trying to handle the coffee while driving; she was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a parked car.
  2. The coffee was indeed dangerously hot: 180–190 degrees, per McDonald’s policy. Coffee at this temperature, it was scientifically demonstrable, can cause third-degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds. Third degree burns are so severe as to require skin grafts—which Ms. Liebeck’s did require (gruesome photos are here; I will not reproduce them on this page out of courtesy). She had actually gone into shock quickly after the incident, and was transported to the hospital immediately.
  3. The woman did not seek a large sum, only $10,500 to cover medical expenses.
  4. They pursued private means twice before filing suit.
  5. McDonald’s rebuffed her and offered $800.
  6. McDonald’s knew the coffee was dangerously hot: they had previous records of over 700 complaints of burns (some severe), and had settled out of court in some cases for over $500,000.
  7. The jury provided two separate awards based on rational principles, not greed or vindictiveness. The first was compensation for damages—hospital bills, etc. This was $160,000. It could have been as high as $200,000, but the jury decided the incident was 20 percent Liebeck’s fault, and reduced the award by that amount. The second award was punitive—a common judicial remedy aimed at punishing the offender with the goal of reforming policy or behavior and deterring future offenses by both the offender and others in society. This award was originally $2.7 million—calculated based upon the average revenue from coffee for two days. The judge reduced this award to $480,000. Total awards = $640,000.
  8. McDonald’s appealed the case, but then settled out of court for a full amount reported to be around $500,000.[1]

There are even more facts to consider than these, but these are sufficient to show the level of misinformation that created a widespread urban myth. The media in most cases spread edited, over-shortened, or even distorted versions of the story. People took the limited info and formed a narrative that was simply not true. We have a word for this: false witness. But worse, it is collective false witness—a group of people believing the same falsehood.

My point here, now, is not merely to rehash what the New York Times and the documentary Hot Coffee have already popularized. Believe it or not, this article is about the need for biblical law.

There are a several points that stand out. The main one has to do with what I talked about at length in Biblical Logic: Christians have a duty to be critical thinkers according to God’s Law. They must not accept reports, claims, and arguments merely at face value. This applies no matter what person says so, what credentials they have, what institutions they represent, how much you’ve trusted them in the past, how many of them there are, how popular it is, how much authority they have to bring force or harm upon you for questioning or disagreeing, or a variety of other factors. Don’t render judgment, and don’t promote judgments, until you have heard all facts in the case. If you have not heard all facts in the case, then tread with divinely-inspired fear.

In this media-driven world, it is even more important to examine biblical law in regard to false witness and crowds or multitudes. The Bible specifically forbids God’s people from making judgments based on wide-spread acceptance or approval of one point of view:

“You shall not follow the crowd toward evil, nor sway a controversy by leaning after the crowd” (Ex. 23:2).

The Bible calls us to review critically all popular opinion, all trusted news outlets (even Fox), all our favorite talk radio shows, and even all our most trusted pastors and religious leaders (yes, even that one) who represent a following. We must never rest content with the reports or perspectives of these alone, but with all the facts of the case as judged in the light of God’s Word. (See Biblical Logic: In Theory and Practice, 2nd Ed., pp. 288–290).

When a large collective believes a lie, that collective becomes susceptible to all sorts of sin. Mobs often wield power and influence over others. Deceived majorities can result in the oppression of others (who stand for the truth, or merely question the myths) and social decline (from trying to uphold a society with false justice or anti-Christian practices).

One similar result that came from the Liebeck case was the attempt at tort reform by members of Congress. Sure, tort reform is probably needed in certain areas, but leaders like Congressmen John Kasich leveraged a neutered narrative of the hot coffee case to push a tort reform bill. This was using false witness to sway a controversy. Ends do not justify means.

One of the greatest outcomes of the more recent critical review of the case (along with its public perception) appears around the 10:53 mark of the video:

What people believe are the facts of the case, and how deeply held those convictions are, has become useful to attorneys. The case that became an example of juries being out of control is now used to screen potential jurors.

In other words, those jurors have become models of what jurors ought to be: slow to judge, critical, skeptical of spin.

Wake Forest Professor John Llewellyn explains of the case: “It’s a wonderful litmus test, if you’re putting someone on a jury, you really have to know how they feel about this case to know whether they’re open to the facts that you’re going to present.” This case challenges potential jurors, he says, because McDonald’s was cast by the media as the victim, but the real facts did not bear out this perception.

How open are you to having your deeply-reinforced beliefs challenged by a contrary set of facts?

And given that we can be shaped and molded into a falsehood by external factors, how quick should we be to render judgments before performing a thorough review of the facts?

This principle certainly applies to judges, juries, and the legal world. It certainly applies to modern highly-public cases as well—such as the George Zimmerman trial, etc. But it also applies every day to friends, parents, siblings, employers, board members, politicians, officers, and any other relationship in lots of cases. People of power and responsibility especially must bear this in mind—for their judgment will be greater.

Decisions about discipline, marriage, work, law enforcement, hiring and firing, planning, etc., must never be made rashly, fearfully, or emotionally, and certainly never based upon a skewed agenda, limited review of facts, one side of the story, a grudge, or popularity.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1–2).

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isa. 11:3–4).

Too many Christians want to hold others to such standards, but not impose them on themselves. But this is self-government under God 101. Pray and work toward this standard in your life today—especially in those areas in which quick judgments would alleviate some annoyance or embarrassment for you. We want to sweep such things under the carpet, but the dirt remains, and will only come back to soil us. Suspend judgment and be thorough. It’s manlier and more faithful to God.

And in the end, the feeling you gain from full integrity will far outweigh any short-term gains you may have had otherwise.

I’ll bet you a cup of coffee on it.



  1. Most of these facts are in the video as well as the Wikipedia article on the case. []

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