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“Hot Coffee” Documentary Exposes Corporate Attacks on Consumer Rights

Hot Coffee, the debut documentary film from Susan Saladoff’s, concentrates on the decades-old debate about limiting money judgments in civil lawsuit cases. The title of the film stems from the widely-reported and commonly-mocked $2.9 million jury verdict awarded in 1994 to Stella Liebeck, an 81-year-old woman who claimed that she was injured because McDonald’s served its coffee too hot. Corporate and insurance America jumped on the case as a the poster child for claims of “frivolous lawsuits” brought by “greedy” and trial lawyers who were unfairly affecting the profit margin of model corporate citizen. However, Saladoff sees things differently. In this informative, persuasive documentary, she describes the harsh unfairness of the relentless corporate campaign to dilute or diminish the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial in civil cases, all in the name of “tort reform.”

No matter whether your politics lean left or right, “Hot Coffee” is a potent and provocative documentary. Saladoff presents a compelling case on how corporate America has used sensationalized lawsuit settlements to curry public opinion against the ordinary citizen’s right to bring a case in court. Most jarringly, she focuses on the infamous McDonald’s case where a woman was awarded millions for burns from hot coffee. Lending perspective, Saladoff also includes numerous man-in-the-street interviews, which clearly indicate that the general public’s uninformed view of the case was that it was outrageous for someone to sue over hot coffee.

What Really Happened in the Hot Coffee Personal Injury Lawsuit?

Stella Liebeck, 79-years-old, was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car having purchased a cup of McDonald’s coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her lap. She received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, necessitating hospitalization for eight days, whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring, and disability for more than two years.

Despite these extensive injuries, she offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. However, McDonald’s refused to settle for this small amount and, in fact, never offered more than $800. The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages — reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault — and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s callous conduct. (To put this in perspective, McDonald’s revenue from coffee sales alone was in excess of $1.3 million a day.) The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but did state that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior. Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s eventually settled for a confidential amount. The jury heard the following evidence in the case:

  • McDonald’s Operations Manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit;

  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns (the worst kind of burn) in three to seven seconds;

  • Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years;

  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and bio-mechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor in chief of the leading scholarly publication in the specialty, the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation;

  • McDonald’s admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years — the risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits, to no avail;

  • From 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people, many receiving severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks;

  • Not only men and women, but also children and infants, have been burned by McDonald’s scalding hot coffee, in some instances due to inadvertent spillage by McDonald’s employees;

  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that its coffee is “not fit for consumption” when sold because it causes severe scalds if spilled or drunk;

  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers are unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then required temperature;

  • McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not;

  • Liebeck’s treating physician testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.

  • McDonald’s did a survey of other coffee establishments in the area, and found that coffee at other places was between 30-40 degrees cooler.

Moreover, the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati had published warnings to the franchise food industry that its members were unnecessarily causing serious scald burns by serving beverages above 130 degrees Fahrenheit. In refusing to grant a new trial in the case, Judge Robert Scott called McDonald’s behavior “callous.”

Saladoff uses Liebeck’s story, along with three others, to raise the idea that corporations are limiting people’s access to the court system by creating the perception that lawsuits like Liebeck’s are frivolous. Hot Coffee includes historical footage of President Reagan calling for tort reform, isolating the case of an unidentified man who was struck by a drunk driver and seriously injured while on a roadside call in a Los Angeles phone booth. Reagan humorously reports to his audience that, “you may be startled to hear” that the victim not only sued the driver, as expected, but an action was also brought against the telephone company, as if to suggest that a lawsuit against the telephone company was preposterous. Saladoff follows the Reagan clip with the facts: The telephone booth was erected too close to the highway and had been hit by cars several times before, damaging the phone booth door, which was never properly repaired. The victim in the case lost his leg because the door to the booth was stuck closed, rendering it impossible to escape the oncoming car. The case against the telephone company was hardly frivolous.

For years, conservative proponents of tort reform have argued that unlimited money judgments, both compensatory and punitive, are tearing at the fabric of American society—retarding corporate growth or discouraging those who may wish to become doctors. The redundant blame always comes back to the claim that frivolous or even fraudulent lawsuits are commonplace. While there may be no reliable data about the number of frivolous lawsuits filed each year, the civil justice system is largely self-regulating and the vast majority of frivolous lawsuits are weeded out early. The initial filtering process is the assessment of the case by lawyers who often take cases on a contingency basis, earning a fee only if there is a recovery; lawyers understandably will avoid a case where the claim is unlikely to succeed. Even after a jury verdict, a judge has the right to modify a jury’s damage award if the evidence does not support it.

The fact of the matter is that personal injury lawsuits take years to conclude. They are very expensive to prosecute and consume the resources of the personal injury lawyer who does not get paid unless he wins the case. It can be highly taxing on a firm to prosecute a case for years with no payment. The insurance companies and corporations know this and will vigorously defend highly meritorious injury cases because for them, it is not about justice. It is about not paying, even when they know they are wrong. Personal injury lawyers rarely would risk their financial future, time and resources prosecuting “frivolous” lawsuits. There is simply nothing to gain, everything to lose and even the “good” cases are difficult to prosecute.

Tort claims serve the public good. More than simply compensating victims, meritorious lawsuits can force corporate or individual defendants to change or modify the behavior that caused the harm or injury. This prevents the same types of bad things from happening to other everyday people, like you! Hot Coffee lends a strong voice to those who favor fundamental fairness in redressing well-founded personal injury legal claims.

For more information on Hot Coffee visit the movies website at http://hotcoffeethemovie.com/

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