Next Monday, June 27, will mark the HBO premiere of Susan Saladoff’s documentary feature film, Hot Coffee. The film, which premiered in January at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, explores the complex politics behind personal injury lawsuits and consumer rights in a society that has become increasingly complacent with the culture of big business. Using the infamous McDonald’s coffee case as a platform for discussing the implications of tort reform, Saladoff, a former civil litigator herself, raises important questions for personal injury lawyers and citizens alike. The most important of these questions perhaps: Is justice being served in our legal system?
In a recent interview with online magazine CanCulture, Saladoff speaks to this question, which seems to be at the heart of the film. “I wanted to tell the truth about how our civil justice system in the U.S. is being distorted by huge public relations campaigns funded by large corporations to limit people’s access to the court system. I used the McDonald’s coffee case as a springboard to tell that story because everybody thinks they know that case and really doesn’t have a clue what that case is about.”
So what was the personal injury lawsuit against McDonald’s really about? In brief, the case Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants resulted from a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck being badly burned by a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee. Suffering third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, Liebeck spent 8 days in the hospital and the next two years on disability. McDonald’s refused Liebeck’s initial settlement request of $20,000. So, the case went to court and a jury decided to award Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages for “McDonald’s callous conduct.” The parties entered a post-verdict settlement following the trial judge’s reduction in punitive damages to $480,000.
This brief summary fails to show the surprising evidence that was strategically left out of the media’s portrayal of the case. Take, for example, the testimony given by Liebeck’s treating physician that her scald burn was one of the worst he had ever seen, or the fact that a survey of other coffee establishments in the area found the average retail cup of coffee to be 30 to 40 degrees cooler than McDonald’s coffee. Though these are just two examples, startling pieces of evidence such as those mentioned above abounded in the case, contrasting dramatically with the media’s spin of the case as another frivolous lawsuit.
As personal injury lawyers in Chattanooga, we cannot help but be moved and alarmed by Saladoff’s documentary, the facts it presents, and the civil justice problems it exposes. We also cannot help but find the public release of Hot Coffee to be ironic and timely, considering Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s most recent work on tort reform. In light of Haslam’s bill, which caps lawsuit settlement payouts in an effort to protect businesses, we can’t help but wonder at the same questions posed by Saladoff in the film. Is a bill that protects businesses at the expense of citizens who are the victims of wrongdoing really serving justice? With strong proponents on both sides of the tort reform debate, we sense that Hot Coffee is a film poised to reignite legal issues that have long-been brewing.