New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Hot Coffee, tort reform


June 27th, 2011

Hot Coffee Tonight

Late last year I wrote about Hot Coffee, a documentary about the tort “reform” industry. The movie, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, included much about the McDonald’s hot coffee case where the late Stella Liebeck was scalded from the brew. I would tell you more about the case, except that you already know the story.

Or, perhaps, you only think you know about the story. Hot Coffee looks not only at that, but at why you think you know about the case and how the publicity campaign got you to form opinions. The move airs on HBO tonight. The trailer is here.

And this is the lede for a review by Hank Stuever from the Washington Post:

We get a lot wrong in our media-transfixed culture, where a wry quip and populist outrage almost always trump any understanding of complicated facts. But rarely do we get someone as wrong as we got Stella Liebeck.

Was the movie good? Steuver reaches this conclusion:

Unlike so many documentaries these days, “Hot Coffee” is refreshingly unadorned or manipulated for artistic or tear-jerking effect. It winnows down complicated legal arguments and anecdotal cases with compassion and clarity. It does everything a documentary can do — which, in terms of effecting change, isn’t much. But if nothing else, it has at least given Stella Liebeck what McDonald’s and Jay Leno did not: understanding.

So if you have HBO, it seems like this is something you might want to tune in to. Especially if you are on the other side of the aisle from where I usually stand. Because it isn’t just about coffee.

Other reviews of the film after it debuted at Sundance can be read here.

8 thoughts on “Hot Coffee Tonight

  1. I’ve seen several reviews that take the opposite tack and regard the “documentary” as little more than trial lawyer propaganda. Certainly the driving force behind the film, Susan Saladoff, cannot be accused of objectivity. I’m not sure I could find a less objective film maker unless I had commisioned Arafat to do a documentary on Israel

  2. I’m not sure I could find a less objective film maker unless I had commisioned Arafat to do a documentary on Israel

    But if Arafat said 2+2=4, he wouldn’t have been wrong just because he was Arafat.

    Saying “kill the messenger” is just a means of ignoring the message.

  3. Maybe, but Saladoff is saying 2+2=5 and I’m not buying it any more than I bought it when Arafat or Bin Laden said 2+2=5

    Objectivity is important and there is damned little of it in political discussions these days. Tort reform, while it really should be an issue of justice, has become a political football, either a straw man to be ridiculed by those who make boatloads of money off litigation or a holy crusade against the forces of evil. It is neither.

    By the way – how stupid do you have to be to hold a hot cup of coffee between your thighs ? Or to bungee jump and then try to sue for a whiplash injury ? Or suffer an injury when you run a red light and then sue on the basis that the driver with the green light should have assumed that you would run the red light ?

    Bah humbug !

  4. If the wiki on this story is true, she spent 8 days in the hospital, had skin grafting, and her medical bills were only $10,500. Wow! Talk about price inflation! I think my fiance’s bill was $8,000 just for an ER visit last year!

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  6. @Avenger:

    a. How does 2+2=5 in this instance? Be specific, if you can.

    b. Holding a cup of coffee between your thighs is pretty dumb, which is why the jury made a finding of comparative negligence and adjusted the award downward accordingly. It’s so much more refreshing to mock a little old lady than to look at the facts of the case, though.

    c. Since I answered your question, please tell me if it is “stupid” for a large corporation (1) to deliberately brew its coffee at temperatures known to cause burns, (2) to ignore the possibility of injury despite being fully aware of the risk, (3) to ignore 700+ complaints about burns caused by their coffee, and (4) to reject a request by an injured old lady to just pay her medical bills? These are all facts presented in the documentary (which I actually watched) in question, and they are not disputed by anyone.

    I’d also note, at least in Texas, that “tort reform” has succeeded in limiting jury awards and driving many PI lawyers out of business (i.e. killing jobs), but has failed to reduce either insurance premiums or health care costs. Tort reform advocates either made a mistake or they are liars (or both).

  7. Than you Susan Saladoff for exposing the truth behind the hot coffee. Can you imagine what this elderly women went through not only the pain of the third degree burns but her entire family was raked over the coals by big business trying to make her look greedy for seeking justice.