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Thoughts on tort law

There are two schools of thought to French press coffeemakers. One is to bring water to near boil. The other is to bring the water to a savage, rolling boil. I belong to the latter school. The water hits the coffee grounds and magic happens, pulling impossible, unimaginable flavors out of the beans. Decadence reigns.

When I drink it, it’s so hot that I have to breathe in while I sip gingerly. It makes that little zzippp sound. That’s the curse of a stellar cup of hot coffee, of course. For the first while, you have to zzippp it or you’ll burn yourself. Then, for a few minutes, it’s perfect. Still hot enough that you can’t chug it, but you no longer need to zzippp. Then, tepid. Which is why God invented the microwave.

When I purchase Starbucks coffee, I regularly manage to burn my tongue, the roof of my mouth and/or my lips in some combination. This happens because, with the plastic lid on the cup, I can’t accurately judge when to start zzippping. For about 36 hours, I’m left with a tender, grainy, “dead” texture on said body parts. I assume the Starbucks coffee would be decidedly unfriendly to any part of my body over which it poured at that temperature.

On Feb. 17, I received two letters calling me to task for my column about tort law. Both letters were intelligent and much appreciated by me. I don’t have the space to reprint both letters here. So I’m going to combine and recount the salient points with every effort for fairness and accuracy:

■ That, since tort law is not within the scope of my expertise, it’s likely I didn’t know what I was talking about;

■ That, with the privilege of a “mass communication venue” comes great responsibility, i.e., it was irresponsible of me to publish a column outside of my area of expertise;

■ Both writers assumed I had never seen the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee,” and urged me to do so;

■ One letter urged me to read the Wikipedia entry of Liebeck v. McDonald’s, which the writer (a law student) describes as “largely accurate, though hardly complete.”

So, in that same order, allow me …

I am a legal ignoramus. I have never been to law school. I would argue, however, that, strictly speaking, my column wasn’t about tort law. The column contained, as my column often does, cultural observations. I’m kind of a closet anthropologist, with one foot planted firmly in modern psychology, the other in Western philosophy, and a third appendage in forensics just because I enjoy critical thinking, debate and public dialogue. Now, since there is no accrediting body for Closet Anthropology, I suppose I cannot rightly claim “expertise” in any case.

Here, again, are those cultural observations:

— That tort law comes with the emergence of tort culture;

— That tort culture regularly contains, from a strictly forensic viewpoint, inconsistencies and contradictions about which I’m really curious and sometimes incredulous;

— That tort culture changes (erodes) our relationship with personal responsibility.

Indeed, I have seen the movie “Hot Coffee.” I came away thinking the crux of the film is the idea that corporations and insurance companies have and are conspiring against the individual rights of Americans. “Hot Coffee” filmmaker Susan Saladoff says, “Tort reform are all of the different ways that corporations have figured out to convince you to give up your constitutional rights to access the court system.”

A wee bit overstated, yes?

The Wikipedia entry (which I had never read) reiterates what I have read before: that the unfortunate woman was a passenger, that her son pulled over and stopped the car so she could use sugar and creamer, that she cradled the coffee between her knees and pulled the lid toward herself, that it spilled and gave her third degree burns. The fundamental argument of the lawsuit was that McDonald’s serving coffee at 180-190 degrees was a tort. A wrongful act. An injustice, risking the health and safety of all their coffee customers.

And now, to answer the question you both asked …

No. I don’t think it would have even crossed my mind to sue. I just wasn’t raised that way. If I decide to cradle hot coffee between my knees, I’m assuming a risk. Just as if I decide to carry my Wusthof paring knife in my jeans pocket and it cuts me. It would never occur to me to blame the knife or its makers. It’s sharp. What was I thinking?

Note to Starbucks Coffee Co.: Don’t change one thing. I love your coffee. My occasional struggles navigating when, how and whether to zzippp through your plastic lids are solely and only my responsibility. We’re good.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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