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‘Hot Coffee’ Spills Out the Case Against Tort Reform

October 4, 2011 Published in Articles

Everyone has heard the story: A woman pulls up to a McDonald’s drive thru for some coffee. While holding the coffee cup and trying to drive at the same time, she spills coffee on her lap and burns herself. She sues McDonald’s, becomes a millionaire, and all her troubles are over. The case is a prime example of a frivolous lawsuit or so-called “jackpot justice.”

That, at least, is the urban legend played out by the media, comedians and politicians. What actually happened to the woman in the coffee case is much more serious, a point the documentary “Hot Coffee” attempts to make while looking at the American justice system and the idea of tort reform. The movie uses the coffee case to ask the question: Is justice being served?

The movie explores what actually happened to then 79 year-old Stella Lieback, the woman who suffered burns from the McDonald’s coffee. In reality Lieback was a passenger in a parked car and the coffee spilled as she was trying to add cream and sugar to the cup which she held between her knees.

The coffee had been brewed to over 180 degrees, and as Lieback attempted to peel the lid back the entire cup collapsed. Lieback suffered third degree burns on 16 percent of her body, burns so bad that her doctors thought she might not live. She required skin grafts and was in the hospital for eight days. The images of Lieback’s burns are graphically displayed in the film.

Although she initially was awarded $2.9 million, an appeals court reduced her award to $480,000. Lieback has since passed away, and her family says she never fully regained her quality of life after the accident.

So where did the more fictionalized story of the coffee case come from? The movie argues that corporations pushed the story to influence Americans’ perceptions of justice, and put forward the case against frivolous lawsuits and for tort reform. The film argues that the coffee case is only one example of the misperceptions Americans have about the justice system.

The movie also explores several cases where injured plaintiffs are left in difficult straits because of caps on damages or being forced out of the traditional court system and into mandatory arbitration. The film argues that the aim of tort reformers is largely to shield big corporations and medical providers from accountability at the expense of injured individuals.

The film definitely leaves audiences with something to think about. The director of the documentary, Susan Saladoff, states that she wants “people to be empowered to take back our justice system.”

That is exactly what we should do. We could start by asking critical questions about dubious proposals for “tort reform.” Whose interests do such proposals really serve? And how would they affect real people?