Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

CRITICAL THINKING AND THE McDONALD'S HOT COFFEE CASE: A PEDAGOGICAL NOTE

Academic journal article Southern Law Journal

CRITICAL THINKING AND THE McDONALD'S HOT COFFEE CASE: A PEDAGOGICAL NOTE

Article excerpt

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the now legendary case of Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants} A basic sketch of the case is well known. A jury awarded an elderly woman a large sum of money for damages she incurred as a result of spilling hot coffee on herself while seated in her car. Widely reported, the McDonald's case soon reached iconic status in popular culture as the epitome of a "frivolous lawsuit" in a society gone amok with hyper-litigiousness. Some commentators have speculated that the case may provide "more common knowledge about the United States civil justice system than any other single lawsuit."2 Indeed, it seems rare to find a student taking a legal studies class who has not encountered the McDonald's hot coffee case prior to class and formed an opinion about it.3

The lead author of this pedagogical note has used the McDonald's hot coffee case to teach critical thinking skills in her legal studies classes. Partly because students come to class with preconceived notions about the case, it has proved an excellent vehicle for helping students critically examine their general views about the U.S. tort system. Students leam not only about applicable tort law, but also about how to apply critical thinking skills to legal anecdotes that they leam (or potentially misleam) from the media. Most importantly, by becoming more educated about the facts and law of the hot coffee case the students reflect upon how their misconceptions about the legal system may impede their ability to make effective managerial decisions.

The following discussion proceeds in three parts. It begins by describing the development of the hot coffee case study at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). It then discusses the goals of critical thinking generally. It closes with an assessment of the critical-thinking results achieved at UMUC through the use of the hot coffee case.

I. Developing the Case Study

The MBA Program at UMUC employs an integrated cohort-model that consists of seven seminars worth six-credits each. The hot coffee case was developed for use in the first required seminar. The seminar is offered both online and in a combination online and face-to-face format. The legal environment of business, corporate social responsibility, and business ethics are three of the main topics covered in the seminar.

The initial seminar also introduces ten competencies required of high performing managers. These competencies include critical thinking, ethical leadership, systems thinking, decision making, executing decisions, information literacy/research skills, technology fluency, diversity and crosscultural perspectives, communications skills, and team building skills.4 The MBA program adopts the view that in order to lead effectively, managers must approach their responsibilities from a critical and strategic perspective, while keeping a firm grounding in ethical principles. It also assumes that their success will depend upon the exercise of sound critical thinking skills, which take into account the full ethical and social consequences of their decisions.

A. The Hot Coffee Assignment

In both the online and combination online and face-to-face delivery sections for the course, the students complete the hot coffee assignment online, although in combination delivery sections, the discussion often spills over into the next face-to-face class session. The students perform the assignment in the sixth week of a thirteen-week semester, after they have completed introductory assignments in business ethics and the legal environment of business and after they have analyzed articles using the critical thinking method outlined in Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by M. Neil Browne and Stuart M. Keeley.5 The assignment consists of three parts designed for completion in one week.

1. Reading the Winnebago Case and Posting Preconceptions about Stella

In the first part of the hot coffee assignment, students read a short newspaper column written under the pseudonym "The Mighty Quinn" and post their reactions in an online conference. …

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