HBO Documentary Looks At The “Hot Coffee” Case

Ken AshfordCourts/LawLeave a Comment

You've all heard about the klutzy woman who sued McDonald's because her coffee was hot when she spilt it on herself?  And how she won?

That story is used repeatedly to show that lawyers are bad people who create frivilous and stupid lawsuits.

A couple of years ago, I discussed the "McDonald's coffee" case, exposing it for what it actually was: a very serious lawsuit about a very serious injury.  Not that it changed the tide.  It didn't.

Fortunately, this might:

Hot Coffee, a superb new HBO documentary directed by Susan Saladoff, points out that this politically potent narrative consists of half-truths and outright falsehoods. Liebeck’s suit and the jury’s decision were in fact far from unreasonable, and the misleading narrative about the case has helped corporate interests and their political allies make it more difficult for corporations to be held accountable in court.

Saladoff’s film lays out the real story in lucid detail, and no matter how many times the suit was used in Jay Leno monologues there was nothing funny about it. Liebeck was not careless, but spilled the coffee when she, as a passenger in a parked car, took the lid off the cup. The spill did not cause a trivial injury, but severe burns that required multiple operations and skin grafts to treat. McDonald’s, which served its coffee at 180 degrees, had received more than 700 complaints from customers, constituting a clear warning, but it nonetheless required its franchises to serve it at that temperature without warning customers.

Nor was Liebeck greedy or especially litigious. Her initial complaint requested only about $20,000 to cover her medical bills and other related expenses, and she took McDonald’s to court only after the corporation offered a paltry $800 settlement. The headline-generating $2.7 million Liebeck was awarded in punitive damages (selected because it approximated two days worth of the revenues McDonald’s makes by selling coffee) was reduced on appeal to less than $500,000. (The case was later settled for an undisclosed amount.) The Liebeck suit was a thoughtful attempt to seek appropriate redress for a serious harm, not about a clumsy woman trying to wring millions from an innocent corporation.

Sounds like good TV.