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Mythbusting: McDonald’s never paid $2.9 million because of hot coffee

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In 1982, any venue that booked Van Halen had to read and sign a seemingly endless contract laying out the band's needs. A line from page 40 of the contract has long ago passed into lore: M&M's, it says. "(WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)."

Van Halen's brown M&M's are synonymous with rock-star excess. But the band didn't care about brown M&M's. They cared about knowing whether the venue had carefully read the contract. They were a pioneer in bringing arena-like performances to smaller cities. That meant huge, hot lights; insanely heavy equipment; thick cables snaking across the stage. If something went wrong, it could go very wrong.

Hence the brown M&M's. "If I came backstage and I saw brown M&M's on the catering table, it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we had to do a serious line check," David Lee Roth later explained.

I call this the Van Halen Principle: tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often just stories you don't yet understand.

There's no better example of the Van Halen Principle than the story of the 81-year-old woman who sued McDonald's for $2.9 million dollars because her coffee was too hot. The facts of the case sound insane. But that's because they're not the facts of the case.

In 2013, the New York Times produced a great, short video walking through what really happened to Stella Liebeck, what she wanted from McDonald's, why the jury hit McDonald's with such a huge fine, and what happened to everyone afterwards. Spoiler alert: McDonald's did a whole lot better than Liebeck.


Of course, it wasn't an accident that the case got blown into a national outrage. There was money to be made. McDonald's and other major corporations pushed the case as evidence that Congress needed to pass laws protecting them from lawsuits. Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" championed the idea and used the Liebeck story to make their case. It's a bit of an addendum to the Van Halen Principle: tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often told because they can help someone else get rich or get elected.

(Video via Upworthy.)

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