In 1984, a 79-year-old woman named Stella Liebeck bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-through, subsequently spilled it on herself and suffered third degree burns. When her lawyers took McDonald’s to court, Liebeck was awarded $160,000 to cover medical expenses, plus an additional $2.7 million in punitive damages.
Maybe you remember this case. Maybe, like Jerry Seinfeld, you made jokes about it. Full disclosure: I made jokes about it, too. How could you not? Somebody spilled coffee and got millions for it—what clearer indication did you need that the legal system was out of control?
Hot Coffee is a documentary that takes the unpopular stand that Liebeck’s award was entirely justified and not the result of greedy lawyers and an inept jury. You might be inclined to agree, too, especially after seeing photos of the appalling tissue damage to the elderly woman’s legs. She was seriously burned—McDonald’s brewed that cup at a scalding 180-degrees—but we never heard about that. What was lost in the hullaballoo at the time was that Liebeck didn’t set out to receive a fortune for McDonald’s—she only wished to collect enough to cover medical expenses left uncovered by her insurance. McDonald’s initial settlement offer? $800.
Ultimately, even the $2.7 million figure is misleading—McDonald’s eventually settled out of court for a much smaller sum.
But Hot Coffee isn’t solely a doc about this one issue. Rather, attorney-turned-director Susan Saladoff takes the Liebeck case as a starting point to look at worrying developments in the American legal system, particularly the fraught issue of tort reform. In legalese, a “tort” refers to a situation in which someone is harmed, either through the neglect or deliberate action of someone else. Traditionally, American businesses have been held legally liable for their actions, thereby encouraging them to avoid creating situations in which consumers might be hurt.
As the film points out, a private citizen is Constitutionally entitled to his or her day in court in order to confront those businesses who cause harm to their consumers (or employees). That is changing, however. In the wake of the McDonald’s coffee trial, a full-scale attempt to roll back this right was instituted on four fronts.
First, the issue of “spurious lawsuits” was made into a bogeyman that represented a legal system run wild, one that was failing to address the genuine needs of the populace—despite the fact that such lawsuts actually form a tiny minority of claims. Next came the campaign to put caps on damages awarded to plaintiffs, even when the plaintiff’s claims are legitimate and the defendant is at fault. Third came the campaign to replace pro-citizen judges and legislators with those who were more sympathetic to the desires of big business. Finally, the film details the trend toward substituting binding arbitration for courtroom litigation.
The filmmakers focus on a different case to amplify each of these concerns. To illustrate the effects of caps on damages, we’re shown a family whose son is brain damaged. When pregnant with identical twins, the mother had suffered from inept medical care, leaving one of the boys mentally disabled for life. When the woman and her husband sued for malpractice, the jury ruled in their favor—and yet, the recently implemented cap on punitive damages ensured that their award, though significant, would be only a fraction of what was required to provide care for their handicapped son. The family is left to pick up the slack.
Maybe the most infuriating situation here—and they are all infuriating—concerns Jamie Leigh Jones, a young woman who got a job with defense contractor Halliburton and soon found herself whisked off to Iraq where she was to work as support staff. Upon arrival, she was housed in a barracks with 400 men, where she was drugged and subjected to gang rape before being isolated in a cell without contact with the outside world. Before leaving the US, she had been assured that her housing would be with other women, in separate quarters from the men.
When she was finally rescued and returned to the United States, Jones tried to sue Halliburton, but couldn’t: amid the fine print of the work contract she had signed was a clause providing for binding arbitration in the case of any dispute. These clauses have become increasingly prevalent over the years—in all likelihood, you have them in your cell phone contract, your credit card agreements, maybe even in your employment contract. When Jones realized that her employer would accept no responsibility for placing her unprotected in a hostile work environment, she turned to the government for help. Subsequent events proved to be simultaneously infuriating and encouraging.
Extras on this DVD are fairly thin, but given the power of the documentary, this isn’t a significant problem. The meatiest extra feature is a six-minute interview with director Saladoff, in which she talks about her law career and some of the influences that led to the making of the movie. There are a handful of brief deleted scenes, none of which are vital.
It doesn’t matter. Hot Coffee is a powerful piece of cinema. It deserves to be seen by anyone with even the slightest interest in the justice system in America, as that system is under concerted attack by interests antithetical to the individuals that the system was designed to protect. It’s not a comfortable film to sit through, but it is a ferociously important one, as riveting as it is significant. Watch it, and you might never make a joke about “the coffee lady” again.