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'Hot Coffee': A blood-boiling documentary

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Stella Liebeck's $2.9 million cup of McDonald's coffee.
  • Stella Liebeck's $2.9 million cup of McDonald's coffee.

You almost certainly don't know the name Stella Liebeck, but you know what she did: sued McDonald's and won $2.9 million because she was scalded by their hot coffee.

Liebeck's case is both the butt of jokes and the reason cited for the so-called "need" to stop "frivolous lawsuits." But as you'll see in Susan Saladoff's thoroughly engrossing film Hot Coffee, there's a lot more to the story.

Here are some things about the Liebeck case you probably don't know. (I certainly didn't.)

-Liebeck wasn't driving at the time; she was in the passenger seat and the car was parked.

-She suffered third-degree burns - the photos are not for the squeamish - and underwent years of expensive medical treatments.

-All she initially wanted was for McDonald's to cover her medical bills. McDonald's offered $800.

-Liebeck was one of more than 700 people scalded by McDonald's coffee.

-It was a jury of Liebeck's peers who awarded her $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The $2.7 million represented two days' worth of McDonald's coffee sales.

That's a lot not to know. Now, we can blame ourselves for not investigating the facts further and we can criticize facile media coverage for our collective ignorance of the facts.

But Saladoff suggests there's another culprit: a clever and broad-based public relations push on behalf of big business to limit the public's right to sue. And that effort used Liebeck's case brilliantly, making it the poster child for lawsuits that supposedly clog the courts and drive up the costs of the products and services we buy.

As noted in the film, "If we can't hold perpetrators of wrongdoing accountable, none of us are safe from their actions." Yet big business has done an extraordinary job getting average citizens to vote against their own self interests.

And that's what the rest of Saladoff's film is all about. She introduces us to a Nebraska couple whose son suffered brain damage at birth due to a doctor's negligence. Jurors were told the family would need $6 million for his care; they awarded $5.6 million. But Nebraska law caps malpractice damages at $1.25 million, so the family received about a quarter of the money it needed. The system, in effect, protected a bad doctor at the expense of an average citizen.

Is there an upside? Can we at least expect lower medical costs? Well, no. Despite what we've been led to believe, states with malpractice caps actually have higher liability premiums for doctors than states without caps.

Then there's the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a Halliburton employee who was drugged and brutally raped while on assignment in Iraq. She thought she had a right to sue but found out she had signed an agreement that was limited to arbitration. And since employers hire the company that arbitrates the case, it's hard to imagine many arbitrators ruling for the employee. (By the way, if you have a credit card or a cell phone, you've probably signed an agreement requiring you to agree to binding arbitration rather than filing a lawsuit.)

In addition to pushing caps on jury awards and forcing arbitration, business also has worked to stack the courts with pro-business judges. Saladoff introduces us to exhibit A: Mississippi Judge Oliver Diaz, who was run out of office because he sided with average citizens. (His story was the basis for the John Grisham book The Appeal.)

All of this adds up to the sorry state we're in - an ill-informed populous and a system tilted heavily in favor of the powerful. Hot Coffee is advocacy journalism at its finest. When it's over, it won't be coffee that'll be boiling. It'll be your blood.

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