The late paleontologist Stepehen Jay Gould once said, “Facts do not ‘speak for themselves.’ They are read in the light of theory.” We here at Abnormal Use never really understood what Gould meant until we read this editorial by Daniel Leddy at silive.com. The piece, entitled, “Advance legal columnist: Look at all the facts behind outlandish jury awards,” suggests that there is normally a rational explanation found in either the law or the facts when a lawsuit produces a seemingly absurd result. While not all results are warranted, we agree that people should gather all the necessary facts before forming any opinions.That said , Leddy’s opinions on the legitimacy of jury verdicts is not what caught our eye. Rather, it is his one and only case sample – the famed Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case.
To demonstrate that not all jury awards are as bad as they seem, Leddy proposed to reveal the “actual facts” of the case. For the most part, the facts Leddy outlines are consistent with those found in our comprehensive FAQ file. While we have both attempted to provide an objective account of the infamous hot coffee case, we ultimately reach different conclusions about the case. So, how can this be?
Stephen Jay Gould was a wise man.
Facts are facts. But, their meaning is all in how you read (or present) them. For example, Leddy indicates that McDonalds served coffee at temperatures close to 190 degrees and that, according to the plaintiff’s expert, liquids at 180 degrees could inflict burns in just a few seconds. All true. However, he omits evidence that Liebeck would have suffered the same burns had the coffee been served at 130 degrees – well below the optimal temperature range (155-160) recommended by the plaintiff’s expert. More actual facts, but these paint a much different picture.
The difference is in theory and what one wants to prove. The facts can’t be changed. They are what they are. Nonetheless, both sides have a job to do. Whether it is the lawyers at trial or legal bloggers some 20 years later, the facts have to be presented in a manner that supports your theory.
Again, we agree with Leddy’s premise that people should learn the facts before forming any rash opinions. However, it is not always that easy. As is the situation with the Liebeck case, the notion that one is going to present you with the “actual facts” so that you can see the truth is misleading. More often than not, those facts are being filtered through a theory and may not be telling the complete story.
We don’t mean to discourage anyone from gathering information. Rather, our purpose is quite the opposite. Just pay attention to your source – whether it is Abnormal Use, Leddy, or anyone else – and form your own theory.
P.S. In light of this fact/theory distinction, we must continue to refer readers interested in the hot coffee case to our FAQ file. The FAQ is a comprehensive, source-based account of any and all information readily available to the public.