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‘Hot Coffee’ Raises Important Questions About Justice

Posted in Our Blog on July 19, 2011

Our office recently viewed Hot Coffee, a great HBO documentary that questions many things we’ve come to assume about our civil justice system.

Nearly everybody has heard of the McDonald’s “Coffee Case”, but what’s amazing is how few people are aware of the facts of this case. Hot Coffee begins by shedding light on the case and its aftermath. The case has been the source of joking and outrage, mocked as the epitome of an overly litigious culture. Popular opinion has it that Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the case, spilled some McDonald’s coffee on herself while driving and subsequently “hit the jackpot” by suing McDonald’s and winning several million dollars. This opinion is nowhere near the truth, as the film quickly reveals.

The film quickly sets straight several of the facts: 1) Ms. Liebeck, 79-years old at the time, was not driving, as is frequently stated; she was a passenger, and her car was parked in the parking lot of an Albuquerque McDonald’s when the incident occurred, 2) McDonald’s had a policy of keeping its coffee at temperatures around 180°F, a temperature at which experts in the film say would cause severe third-degree burns within seconds of contact with human skin [McDonald’s has since changed this policy], 3) Ms. Liebeck sustained severe third-degree burns on her legs, thighs, and groin, and required skin grafts, 4) Ms. Liebeck initially asked McDonald’s for a settlement of $20,000 to cover medical expenses and lost wages; they refused and offered only $800, and 5) Over the previous decade, McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints about the temperature of its coffee but had done nothing about them.

What’s especially astounding is how quickly interview subjects in the film – typically random pedestrians on the street – quickly change their opinions about the case when seeing pictures of Ms. Liebeck’s burns. It’s the most fascinating sequence in the entire film: Instantly, people convinced of one thing change their minds, all because of a picture. Suddenly the case becomes more than a punchline… it becomes real.

A jury of her peers awarded Stella Liebeck almost $3 million, although it was later reduced to less than $500,000 by a judge. This led to a groundswell of support for what came to be known as tort reform.

One of the things Hot Coffee is careful to illustrate is that public opinion tends to build not around facts but around rhetoric and emotion. Ms. Liebeck has became a joke, a poster child for “Jackpot Justice”, mostly because that was the easy story angle to spin, and in our information age the nuances of the truth can get easily lost. So when the business community used the Liebeck case as the ultimate argument for tort reform, it was very easy to gain support and momentum from an outraged public. That’s why the pictures of the burns are so powerful; they quickly change everybody’s mind about the case, but society at large is too busy to look, much less understand complicated litigation.

The film then examines the stories of several people affected by tort reform. We meet a couple in Nebraska who were awarded $5.6 million by a jury in a medical malpractice suit after an OBGYN’s egregious error led to permanent and severe brain damage for their son… but a cap on malpractice awards in Nebraska limited them to receive just $2 million. This may still seem like a lot of money, but consider that it is nowhere close to sufficient for paying a lifetime of medical expenses for a special-needs person. We also meet a young woman sent to work for Halliburton in Iraq who was gang-raped by male co-workers. She was subsequently not allowed to sue Halliburton in open court because of a clause she had agreed to in her employment contract. Her only recourse would have to see her case heard behind closed doors, by a (likely Halliburton-sympathetic) arbitrator.

Susan Saladoff, the director of Hot Coffee (her first film), is herself an experienced plaintiffs’ attorney. There is real outrage brewing beneath the surface of this entertaining and fast-moving documentary, and it surely comes from experience. “I wanted to change the conversation,” Saladoff said in interviews about the film. “The other side of this issue has monopolized the conversation because of the amount of money they have.” The outrage stems from the dishonesty spread by wealthy and powerful tort reformists. For example, reformists argue that medical malpractice caps lower the cost of health care and spread the savings on to the consumer… except that insurance premiums have continued to rise in the states in which caps were enacted (The film points out that Texas, which placed a malpractice cap in 2003, has seen health care costs continue to climb in the years since.).

The film argues that as a public galvanized behind tort reform, it unwittingly surrendered some of its rights. We do this knowingly. Awards caps take away the ability of a jury to determine damages in a case; though a jury of your peers still has the ability to, say, determine the outcome of a death penalty case, they are apparently unqualified to determine awards in civil cases… This makes sense how?

Well, it doesn’t. But jurors are likely more sympathetic to David than to Goliath, and large corporations have the resources to avoid giving power to juries. That’s why there was such support for tort reform by the business community, and it’s why business-friendly Supreme Court justices receive huge financial support come election time.

Regardless of what you think about tort reform and civil litigation, Hot Coffee is essential watching for everyone, if only because it forces us to take a second look at what we thought we knew for certain. The McDonald’s coffee case proves that we don’t care much about somebody when we treat him or her as a joke and a target, but we’re capable of changing instantly when we connect a face to the name. We just need to take the time to understand what’s going on. Near the end of the film we’re told a compelling and chilling story of a man who attempted a medical malpractice suit in Texas:

There’s a story of a gentleman in Waco, he was harmed, and he sought to hold the doctor who harmed him accountable. He came to find out that he couldn’t do that, and he had voted for the state constitutional amendment that allowed the legislature to limit the rights of patients. And when he was told, “Proposition 12 is what made this happen, made it so that you couldn’t access the courthouse,” he said, “Well, I voted for that! But… that’s not my case, that’s those people who file frivolous lawsuits. That’s those people who are trying to cash in on some lawsuit lottery… I’m just trying to hold the person who harmed me accountable.” And he realized at that moment, “What I’ve been told all of these years: That’s me.”

HBO subscribers can watch Hot Coffee on HBO-On-Demand or at HBO-GO. It will be available on DVD November 1st. Visit Hot Coffee‘s official Facebook page.