I was around 7 years old when the McDonald’s “hot coffee” case became famous. The way I remembered it, an old woman spilled super hot coffee on her lap, sued McDonald’s, and won millions of dollars. I never really thought that much about it and I definitely never thought it was stupid. I guess I imagined that if someone burned themselves badly enough to sue, then it must have been worth it. I think at that age, too, I also thought that if a group of adults (like the court) agreed with the woman, then it was probably correct either way.
Hot Coffee focuses on four different stories on different areas of tort reform, focusing first on Stella Liebeck’s lawsuit against McDonald’s for the coffee. I loved the way the documentary went about telling this story: first they ask a bunch of people what they know about the case, then explain what really happened. Every person they talked to was wrong on some level, usually in major ways. There was a lot of talk of “this old woman spilled coffee in her lap while she was driving and sued McDonalds for millions and millions” kind of stuff. But the documentary quickly points out that all of these ideas about the case have come directly from how the case has been portrayed in the media, not the case itself. Because, to me, the facts make a lot more sense. Stella Liebeck was 79 when she spilled the coffee and was not driving. In fact, she wasn’t even in a moving car; her grandson (who was driving) pulled into a parking space so they could get their orders all organized. Liebeck was taking the lid off the coffee to put cream and sugar in when the cup essentially collapsed and spilled the coffee on her. She had third degree burns that required multiple skin grafts and surgeries and never fully recovered. But then there’s the coffee itself. Per McDonald’s requirements, the coffee was kept at a holding temperature of between 180-190 degrees, hot enough to immediately cause third degree burns on your throat if you drank it. And then on top of that, there’s the suit itself. This is where I was majorly wrong: Liebeck didn’t get millions and millions of dollars from McDonald’s. She won $640,000.
The second story is about a couple and their twin sons. One son was born severely brain damaged from lack of oxygen to his brain, which his mother suspected when she could feel the babies moving less in the days before they were born. Her doctor told her everthing was fine and as a result, one of the twins will need 24/7 care for the rest of his life. They successfully sued the doctor (who had been sued before) for a pretty large amount of money, which was figured out to cover the son’s cost of living for the rest of his life. Instead of that amount, though, they got just barely over $1 million because of a law in their state that puts caps on settlements.
The third story focuses on a former Supreme Court Justice from Mississippi, Oliver Diaz, who was the one political holdout that was against tort reform. He was falsely charged with bribery and all of the procedures involving that kept him out of the office for three years, effectively making him useless as a judge, which is exactly what the big companies that are pro-tort reform wanted.
The third story is on Jamie Leigh Jones, a former Halliburton employee who accused her co-workers of drugging and brutally gang-raping her, before she was locked in a shipping container guarded by an armed guard by her employers after she reported the rape. She could not bring any charges to court because of this arbitrition thing she signed when she was first hired. The arbitrition takes away the possibility of your case being seen or heard by a judge or jury, which seems like it just shouldn’t be legal.
The world of tort reform is huge and one that I knew nothing about before this documentary. That happens so often with good documentaries; they bring you into this world that you probably didn’t even know existed before and shows you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Parts of Hot Coffee are overwhelming, like how crazy and scary Jones’ situation was. Other parts are sort of boring as there’s a lot of courtroom talk. But overall, the movie did a really great job of making something that seems vague and hard to understand seem very real.
I wasn’t into the idea of watching this movie because I thought most of it would go over my head and that I wouldn’t really care. However, watching it, the film gave me a clear understanding of many famous court cases where individuals sued corporations. The biggest example was the lady who sued McDonald’s for serving coffee that was too hot. I still don’t think I know enough on the subject to talk much about it but I think if you are interested in the subject this movie is completely worth watching.