By Don Simpson | December 22, 2011
Director: Susan Saladoff
We all know about the Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case; well, okay, we probably know it as the “McDonald’s coffee case” or the “hot coffee lawsuit.” The butt of countless jokes and snarky comments, this case also became a political tool for those pushing for tort reform. Now, more than 15 years after making international news, Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee asserts that our opinions on this case were adversely influenced by the nefarious objectives of tort reform advocates.
Fifteen years ago, we were told by journalists and talk show hosts that 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap while driving her car, so she promptly sued McDonald’s for damages. We were led to believe that Liebeck sued McDonald’s because she spilled coffee on herself and that sounds pretty freaking ridiculous, right? Well, Saladoff’s documentary dutifully points out that we were grossly manipulated. Liebeck was not driving a car when the coffee was spilled; she was in the passenger’s seat of her grandson’s parked car. More importantly, Liebeck’s burns were so severe that she spent eight days in the hospital undergoing skin grafting. Liebeck sued McDonald’s for “gross negligence” associated with selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured.” (At the time, McDonald’s required its franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190°F.) It also turns out that from 1982 to 1992 McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of people burned by their coffee to varying degrees of severity.
Saladoff utilizes her 25 years of experience as a trial lawyer to clearly layout her arguments against tort-reform. Realizing that Liebeck’s case probably would not be enough to sway popular opinion about torts, Saladoff presents to us other stories of people who suffered irreparable damage by their inability to seek redress for what used to be their inalienable rights. One such case is that of Jamie Leigh Jones — a previous Halliburton employee — who was drugged, beaten and raped by her bunkmates while forced to sleep in all-male housing by her employer during an assignment in Iraq.
Hot Coffee exposes how corporations spend millions of dollars on propaganda campaigns to distort Americans’ view of torts, and how in the process they are gaining an unconquerable advantage in the civil justice system. Saladoff examines the impact of tort reform on the lives of ordinary citizens and reveals how Americans have unknowingly given up their Constitutional rights (voting for caps on damages, signing contracts with mandatory arbitration clauses).
Cleverly placed man-on-the-street interviews reveal the average American’s embarrassing naivety towards the judicial system in the United States, specifically when terms like torts and mandatory arbitration are used. Admittedly, the judicial system in the U.S. is nearly impossible to understand and it seems as though that might be on purpose. As with the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, money talks. Corporations do not want to be financially liable for the irreparable damages caused by their products or services, so they will do whatever they need to in order to reduce (or dissolve) their liability.
Of course there are two sides to every story and Hot Coffee neglects to touch upon tort cases that are truly ridiculous. There are certainly some people in the U.S. who are in constant search for ways to make quick cash from the “jackpot judicial system.” Saladoff asserts that we need to have enough faith in our judges and juries to weed out the unnecessary torts from the righteous ones. From my personal experiences with the U.S. judicial system, I cannot muster that faith; but I will say that after watching Hot Coffee, I am less of an advocate for tort reform. I am also downright embarrassed to have laughed at any jokes about Liebeck’s “hot coffee” case.
An official selection of the Sundance Film Festival, Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, and Hot Docs, Hot Coffee was recently released on DVD by New Video.