We got a special preview of Susan Saladoff’s excellent new documentary, Hot Coffee, Monday at Public Citizen. The movie opens with a look at the case of Stella Liebeck, who famously sued McDonald’s after she was seriously burned by a 49-cent cup of the fast food chain’s hot coffee. Of course, Liebeck, who was 79 at the time of the accident, became the butt of jokes and her case became a cause célèbre as exhibit #1 of a justice system overrun with frivolous lawsuits.
If a woman could sue McDonald’s for spilling coffee on herself, was there any limit to what the courts might be forced to rule upon? But as Saladoff shows, the punchlines and misinformation put forward by so-called tort “reformers” didn’t begin to tell the story of Stella Liebeck. The facts are that McDonald’s brewed its coffee at 180 degrees, a temperature hot enough to seriously burn anyone who might spill it on themselves. In fact, Liebeck’s injuries were so serious she required skin grafts. And she wasn’t the first person burned by McDonald’s hot coffee — at least 700 others had reported injuries after mishaps with the chain’s coffee.
And yet, it was McDonald’s that was often cast as the victim in this case. Incredible.
But Liebeck’s story and how it was used as a rallying cry for tort reform is only a small piece of Saladoff’s film, which is in post-production. She also examines how liability caps on lawsuits can protect the guilty at the expense of their victims and what happens when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spends millions of dollars to get business-friendly judges elected. She also catches us up with Jamie Leigh Jones, the Haliburton contractor who was drugged and gang-raped in Baghdad by coworkers but was prevented from suing her employer because of a mandatory arbitration clause inserted into her employment contract.
Hot Coffee is much more than a movie about a single, grossly misunderstood lawsuit. It is an exposé of one of the biggest threats to our democracy today — the corporate assault on our system of justice.