A few months ago, we mentioned a new documentary that was making the film festival circuit. That documentary is called Hot Coffee, and it is currently being aired on HBO.
We were pleased when we heard that the film had been picked up by HBO, and we are equally pleased by the number of positive reviews that has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and dozens of other papers all over the country.
The title of the movie comes from the Stella Liebeck case, which is more commonly known as the “McDonald’s Coffee Case.” If you ask the average person on the street (as the film’s director does,) you will probably get something like this:
“A woman gets a coffee from McDonald’s, is trying to drink it while she is driving, spills a little of it on herself, and then sues McDonald’s for $1 million. The jury lets her win and she makes off with a windfall.”
The actual case bears little resemblance to the aforementioned scenario, but thanks to an amazing level of media manipulation, the myths of the case are now considered to be the facts ofthe case.
What really happened to Stella Liebeck was that she suffered extremely severe burns to the inside of her legs, so much so to the point where there was speculation that she might not survive. Secondly, she didn’t try to sue for millions of dollars. She merely sued for her medical fees, which were around $20,000. (Skin grafts are quite expensive, as it turns out.) McDonald’s offered her $800.
There are a few more elements of the case that you never hear about when the case is discussed. You never hear that McDonald’s kept its coffee heated between 180-190 degrees as a matter of company policy. That temperature can cause third degree burns in seconds. You never hear that there were about 700 other people who had suffered severe burns from McDonald’s coffee. And you never hear that McDonald’s had settled in court cases over instances that were quite similar to Ms. Liebeck’s.
For some reason, the McDonald’s Corporation decided to toe the line with Ms. Liebeck, but since there was a history of settlements (which means that they had previous knowledge of the coffee being too hot for safe consumption) and since there was no effort to change the corporate policy of scalding hot coffee, that meant that McDonald’s both knew that the coffee was dangerous and flat out didn’t care.
It should also be mentioned that Ms. Liebeck didn’t demand $1 million. The jury came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that Ms. Liebeck necessarily deserved $1 million, but rather that a company that knowingly put out a dangerous product deserved to be penalized, and should be penalized in the only way that they would understand. And since Ms. Liebeck happened to be the one who was severely injured, and since she was the one who happened to be filing the suit, the money went to her.
However, it wasn’t $1 million that Ms. Liebeck eventually received. It was a little under $600,000. But that isn’t what everybody heard. That wasn’t what the news stories, speeches, bumper stickers and references on Seinfeld talked about. They all talked about the “McDonald’s Coffee Lady,” or “The Million Dollar Boo-Boo.” It even got to the point where a writer started “The Stella Awards,” which are given to people who file “ridiculous lawsuits.”
It goes without saying that there are some frivolous lawsuits out there, but Stella Liebeck should not be the person that is synonymous with them. She was seriously injured by a dangerous product. Naming a satirical award after her is practically the equivalent of naming it after someone who died of asbestos poisoning, or someone who died due to the chemical leak at Bhopal, India.
It is about time that someone brought the truth of Ms. Liebeck’s case to a wide audience. And while this film certainly does that, it also tells us about other ways in which our rights as Americans are slowly but surely getting chipped away by well funded corporate interests. “Damage Caps” that extend to compensation to corporations but not to the injured, mandatory arbitration and the railroading of an anti-tort reform judge all serve to paint a very accurate picture of what the less wealthy are facing if they ever decide to go court.
The main premise of this film is that the legal system is meant for all of us. It is not a perk for the rich. We urge you to see Hot Coffee as soon as possible.
Greenberg and Bederman is a personal injury law firm located in the Washington, D.C. area. We are currently offering legal assistance to those who have been injured due to the negligence of others. If you or a loved one in D.C, Virginia or Maryland has beeninjured in an accident, contact Greenberg & Bederman for afree consultation.