Hot Coffee: A New Documentary Exposes the Lie of Tort Reform


Have you heard the story about the woman who ordered some hot coffee from McDonald’s, spilled it on her lap, burned herself, and sued McDonald’s for millions of dollars? Ridiculous, right? It’s the poster story for so-called “frivolous law suits.”

McDonald’s had already received and ignored over 700 reports that their coffee had burned customers.

Well, would you still think the story was ridiculous if you knew these facts?

  • Stella Liebeck, 79 years old at the time, wasn’t driving when the coffee spilled – she was sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car.
  • She suffered 3rd degree burns from the coffee and required 2 years of painful surgeries and skin grafts.
  • Properly brewed coffee NEVER reaches a temperature where it is capable of causing burns like the ones Ms. Liebeck suffered. McDonalds kept their coffee at 185 degrees, which causes severe burns in 3-7 seconds. Home brewed coffee never gets above 150 degrees, which would not cause these kinds of burns.
  • Even before Ms. Liebeck was injured, McDonald’s had already received and ignored over 700 reports that their coffee had burned customers.
  • Ms. Liebeck’s initial request was that McDonald’s pay $20K, the amount of her medical treatment that Medicare would not cover. McDonald’s offered her just $800.
  • After a trial, a jury of 12 ordinary people decided that McDonald’s blatant of disregard for hundreds of complaints about their coffee warranted an award (and penalty) of 2 days’ worth of coffee sales, which in 1994 was $2.7 million.
  • The jury’s award was appealed by McDonald’s and reduced, and then further reduced to less than $600,000 after McDonald’s mounted a multi-year legal battle against Ms. Liebeck.
  • As part of Ms. Liebeck’s settlement with McDonald’s, she was forced to sign a gag order, which prevented her from speaking about the case or the settlement. McDonald’s told its version of story to the press, while she was legally unable to defend herself or tell her side.

Hot Coffee, Susan Saladoff’s gripping and moving new documentary tells the story of Stella Liebeck and other regular Americans like her who have used the U.S. judicial system to fight for justice. It also tells the story of how corporate interests are, bit by bit, taking our right to trial by jury away. (video after the break)

 [Hot Coffee] tells an important story about our rights that every American should know.

The Bill of Rights guarantees us the Constitutional right to a trial by jury. As we see from the stories in Hot Coffee, Corporations like McDonald’s regularly use their economic power to lobby state governments and the media, to take that right away from ordinary citizens under the guise of “tort reform.” They use slick media campaigns containing half-truths and lies like the ones spread about the hot coffee case to convince the public that it isn’t in their best interest to be able to sue a company and let a jury of their peers decide if that company was in the wrong.

We’re big fans of Hot Coffee, as are many other people (it’s probably going to get nominated for an Oscar). It’s incredibly moving and entertaining, and more importantly, it tells an important story about our rights that every American should know.

Check out Susan Saladoff’s interview with Stephen Colbert on Tuesday night’s Colbert Report in the video clip below, and watch Hot Coffee on HBO Go, or nab it when it comes out on DVD on November 1, 2011.

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Susan Saladoff
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