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How One Cup of Coffee Has Changed Tort Reform Law Forever

HBO documentary Hot Coffee takes us into the lives of 4 people whose cases are shaping the area of law known as tort reform. Headlining these profiles is the case of Stella Liebeck, who brought a case against McDonald's when she spilled a hot cup of coffee in her lap while a passenger in a parked car. Liebeck's injuries consisted of third degree burns that required years of expensive skin grafts and treatments to her legs, groin, and buttocks area. What made it worse, was that McDonald's had prior notice, in the form of 700 plus complaints, of similar injuries.McDonald's even made it their policy to serve the coffee knowing that it was not fit for consumption at that temperature. These facts and others discussed in the documentary tell us that this injury was preventable and McDonald's chose to settle similar claims rather than lower the temperature of the coffee.


With the help of an attorney, Liebeck sought to hold McDonald's accountable for their negligence and be compensated for her existing and anticipated medical expenses. When McDonald's turned down her initial offers to settle, she successfully argued her case to the jury. Although she was considered partially liable for the burns she sustained, Liebeck was awarded close to 3 million dollars; 2.7 million of this amount was punitive and based on what McDonald's makes after two days of coffee sales. The judge reduced the punitive fees bringing her total settlement amount to $640,000. Both parties appealed and eventually settled outside of court reaching an undisclosed settlement amount.

Since then, Liebeck's case has become the landmark case for talks about tort reform. Hot Coffee delves into the measures big business is taking to keep the average person out of the court system. It discusses the media buzz that had the public believing misconceptions about the validity of Liebeck's lawsuit. It also discusses how the Liebeck case has been negatively used by the mainstream media to describe the type of frivolous lawsuits that are clogging up the court systems and driving up the costs of healthcare. It illustrates how Big Business has generated and used these misconceptions to persuade the public to push through legislation limiting the consumer's rights against them by enacting caps on damages they may recover or circumventing the public's right to a jury trial by making arbitration mandatory. Hot Coffee is a thought provoking film asking us to consider the consequences of doing away with our rights in the civil legal system before it's too late to hold these people fully accountable for their actions.

Hot Coffee was directed and produced by first time film-maker and former public interest lawyer Susan Saladoff.