Just a quick heads-up: If you can, watch Hot Coffee on HBO tonight at 9 p.m. EST. Remember the 1994 court case of the woman who was awarded $2.9 million for spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee on herself? It even became a plot point in an episode of Seinfeld. Well, you don’t know the half of it.
Hot Coffee is a documentary that will leave you both stunned and enlightened about the misconceptions we have about civil lawsuits, in this case, and in general. Stella Liebeck, 79 years-old, suffered third-degree burns within seven seconds of opening a cup of McDonald’s coffee while sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car. All she asked for in bringing a lawsuit was the difference between what Medicare paid for and her medical bills. (Liebeck required skin grafts and other operations.) It was a jury that awarded her the large sum — which the jury noted represented a mere two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. The judge reduced that sum, and the case was settled out of court.
Liebeck’s story is eye-opening enough, but Hot Coffee goes on to present three more cases in which ordinary citizens were severely wronged by private companies, the medical profession, and political operatives. (There’s a rape case here with a corporate response to it that will chill your soul and make your blood boil.) Watch Hot Coffee and you’ll learn more about the pernicious effect of tort reform, damage caps, and how state supreme court judges campaigns are sometimes conducted. (Hint: Follow Karl Rove throughout this film.)
Watch Hot Coffee and you won’t be so quick to dismiss something as a “frivolous lawsuit” again.