Hot Coffee (A Review)
Hot Coffee (A Review)

Most people have heard something of the McDonald’s coffee case.  That is the one about the woman who spilled hot coffee on herself after leaving a fast-food drive-thru and then filed a frivolous lawsuit so she could cash in and make millions from our jackpot jury system, right?

Wrong.

Susan Saladoff’s important film documentary, “Hot Coffee,” shows how powerful corporate interests, aided by the news media, have distorted the story of this case to wage a PR war against the rights of individuals who seek redress in the courts.  By making the McDonald’s coffee cup case the poster child for “tort reform,” corporate lobbyists like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and political consultants such as Karl Rove have steered millions of dollars to efforts to sway public opinion against those who have been injured and who rely on the courts to hold wrongdoers accountable.

In talking with my clients, I often find myself pointing out that we don’t have lobbyists in Washington and Harrisburg.  Meaning, most average Americans don’t have the resources to influence face-to-face those who make and re-make the laws and regulations that so profoundly affect our lives.  But the big banks and the chemical companies and the energy companies and the insurance companies, they’ve got the big bucks to hire lobbyists.   They have the resources to finance pro-business candidates.

What I tell my clients – and Saladoff makes this point, too, in her film – is that what we do have is the courtroom.  More than ever, since the Citizens United decision, which has given rise to powerful SuperPacs funded by a handful of billionaires, the courtroom is really the only place where any citizen has at least a fighting chance on a level playing field against a big corporation.

The courtroom is exactly where 79 year-old Stella Liebeck took her grievance against McDonald’s.  Here’s what really happened:

She and her nephew bought a meal at the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s.  They pulled into a space in the parking lot.  Ms. Liebeck rested the coffee cup between her legs so she could add cream and sugar.  The coffee spilled onto her lap, causing her burns severe enough that she needed skin graft surgery.

In the film, we see interviews with a number of folks on the street who are asked what they know about the case.  Their perceptions clearly are based on the media stories and the PR campaigns.  Then they are showed graphic photos depicting Ms. Liebeck’s burn injuries.  After reviewing the photos, one man says, “If I saw injuries like that I’d definitely take a different view of it from what I hear in the media.”

Initially, Ms. Liebeck contacted McDonald’s and asked for assistance with her considerable medical bills.  And she suggested that McDonald’s should do something about the temperature of the coffee before someone else got hurt.  McDonald’s offered $800.

During discovery, after the lawsuit was filed, Ms. Liebeck’s attorneys learned that McDonald’s guidelines required its restaurants to maintain the coffee temperature between 180 and 190 degrees.   Saladoff interviews a surgeon who explains that at this temperature, the coffee could cause full-thickness burns within a matter of seconds.

Ms. Liebeck’s lawyers also learned during the pre-trial period of the lawsuit that McDonald’s had been notified of some 700 prior complaints, all based on the coffee being too hot and causing burn injuries.  McDonald’s callous attitude about all these hundreds of incidents made a strong impression on the jury.  After finding Ms. Liebeck 20 percent responsible for her own injuries, he jury awarded her $160,000 in damages to compensate for her injuries and another $2.7 million in punitive damages.  One of the jurors explained that the juror had settled on this figure because this amounted to just two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.

After the trial, the judge reduced the amount of punitive damages to $480,000 even though he found that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton and reckless” behavior.

So, there was no jackpot jury.  There were no predatory personal injury lawyers.  The case clearly was not some frivolous lawsuit brought to extort money from a deep-pocket corporate defendant.

But that’s exactly how the media portrayed the case.  That is how the Chamber of Commerce characterized the case in radio spots and magazine ads and billboards.  And to this day, that is how the case is incorrectly understood by so many.

In the wake of the media storm over the McDonald’s case, political consultants like Karl Rove worked to elect judges who the business community believed would be more sympathetic to corporate defendants and candidates for elected office who favored “tort reform” measures such as imposing caps on damages for personal injury plaintiffs.

Karl Rove’s most successful client was a certain Texan who became governor of that state and later president of the United States:  George Bush.  A very telling video quote from Bush, really a sort of confession, illustrates the power of the media and the corporate powers-that-be when it comes to shaping public opinion: “In my line of work, you’ve gotta keep repeating things, over and over again, for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.”

That is probably a bit more candid that Bush intended, but it does underscore the problem.  Saladoff identifies a number of “astro-turf” groups – groups that appear to be “grass roots” organizations but, in fact, are funded by large corporations and insurance companies – like Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.  These groups have access to the funds to help elect lawmakers and judges and to take out billboards and other advertising to influence opinion.  And they are out there doing exactly what Bush revealed:  They are repeating over and over again misinformation about our legal system and turning juries against those who most need protecting.

What is the lesson here?  Most importantly, people need to be informed.   Armed with the facts, we can better recognize propaganda for what it is.  People need to be involved in the political process and make sure that those who respect individual rights get in office and stay in office.

For my part, I intend to write about these issues in many ways in the weeks and months ahead.

And a very good place to start, most certainly, is to get and watch “Hot Coffee.

If you go to website for the film – www.hotcoffeethemovie.com – you can get information about when to view it or, like me, you can purchase the DVD and watch it that way.  When you do, I am confident, again like me, you will want to tell others about this important film so they can understand better why it is so important to support those who are fighting to protect individual rights.