BROOKE GLADSTONE: Remember the legal case that became the very model of the nuisance suit -- the woman who spilled hot coffee in her lap and sued McDonald's for damages? In its initial decision, the jury awarded her 200,000 dollars in compensatory damages and 2.7 million in punitive damages. What a joke, right? But consider this: McDonald's sold its coffee at temperatures between 180 and 190 degrees --established burn levels. The woman in question suffered third degree burns over 6 percent of her body, requiring a hospital stay and skin grafts. And it was discovered that McDonald's had received more than 700 complaints from people burned by its coffee over the previous 10 years. We were wondering about another burning story in the media. This week's report of a sheriff who threw a mother in jail for exposing her kids to sunburn. It generated headlines of the Can You Beat This? variety all over the world. We called Jefferson County, Ohio Sheriff Fred Abdalla who, let's face it, has been made a bit of a joke, and he's on the line. So tell me, how did you like your 15 minutes of fame?
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA: Well I didn't look for any 15 minutes of fame. AP called me and wanted to know about this, and I briefly told him; I figured it'd just -they took it out of our local newspaper. And then at 4 o'clock Tuesday evening of this week the floodgates opened up. I mean the news media called from all over the world, okay? So then I explained everything to 'em, and then all of a sudden what I'm seeing is Sheriff Throws Woman in Jail for Her Children Being Sunburned! That's not the way it was!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me what really happened.
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:The fair started last Tuesday. The temperature was 95 degrees with high humidity. About 8 o'clock a registered nurse out at the fair with her children spotted this woman pushing her 3 children -- a 2 year old girl and twin boys that are 10 months old. What got the attention of the nurse was the fact that the one boy's face was so red, and as a nurse and as a mother she went up to the--woman and asked her is this child okay? Why is the child's eyes rolled back in his head like they are? She says oh, well-- they're, they're always like that when the boy's sleeping. Well the kid wasn't sleeping. Just at that point in time with a minute or two my female officer, Deputy Kalfa came along, and noticed the children and escorted 'em over to the emergency area where the ambulances were. I come to the ambulance. I looked in. I saw these children. The one little boy's face looked like it was dipped in red paint. The pictures that you've seen on the airwaves does not reflect the damage to those little children. And she told the ambulance personnel that the ten-- one ten-month-old boy has a collapsed lung! The mother's told them that. Now that became a concern to me. I'm thinking whoa - a collapsed lung?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well why didn't you just send them for treatment? Why put the mother, Eve Hibbits, in jail?
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:Well, she didn't go to jail that day. The children went to the hospital in the ambulance with the mother, and the hospital said they were second degree burns. And based on what she told us, the child had a collapsed lung.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It turned out it was an under-developed lung from a premature birth. So how did, how did she end up in jail?
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:I have nothing to do with charging anybody. I bring the case to the prosecutor. He was going based on what the hospital was telling him. Now this woman was being -- she was camping at the fairground. Her husband was a carnival worker for the week. So had I not did anything on Tuesday, and she's back out there on Wednesday with these children in the sun again, they would have gotten worse and maybe this little boy -- and the medical doctors told me if the child has a collapsed lung or if it's undeveloped, that child could die because of the heat!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So has it -- all of this changed your view of the news media?
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:Oh, no, not at all! Listen, I don't have no problem with the news media. If you're going to report it, what I'm saying is report it right. Put everything in there. Don't come in and just take tidbits and then run with it without getting the full story. Now had I done nothing, Brooke, and that child would have died the next day or got seriously injured or seriously ill, then you would have reporting [sic] a sheriff's being hung in Jefferson County.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And your reaction to the way you were portrayed for the action you took -- doesn't matter to you?
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:Oh, it doesn't matter. I mean-- hopefully the, the -- maybe through you and some of these other talk shows that have talked with me, maybe they'll get the full story out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what if the full story never really gets sufficiently out. What if you stay-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA: Then I have to live with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You just stay The Sunburn Sheriff and to hell with it.
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA:What else can I say, kid? [LAUGHTER] But you know what, Brooke? I can sleep good at night and I can get up in the morning and look in the mirror real well, and don't have a problem. I wouldn't have been able to go to bed at night if I hadn't done anything and one of these children would have been killed or, or died rather. I would, I, I, I just couldn't live with myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a pleasure talking to you.
SHERIFF FRED ABDALLA: It was my pleasure. Thank you, ma'am.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fred Abdalla is a sheriff in Jefferson County, Ohio. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Sean Landis and Megan Ryan; engineered by Dylan Keefe and Irene Trudel, and edited-- by Brooke. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.