You probably think you know everything you need to know about the “McDonald’s Hot Coffee” lawsuit. An old lady buys coffee at a McDonald’s drive thru, puts the cup between her legs, and spills the coffee in her lap while driving away. She then sues McDonald’s and gets millions of dollars. You’d be wrong. The HBO documentary Hot Coffee does an admirable job of describing the true facts of this case and how the tort reform lobby distorted them to trick people into supporting legislation which gives away some of their most valuable rights and protections. It also sheds light on other, less well known efforts to deprive you of your right to seek redress before the only branch of government (the judiciary) where you stand on equal footing with those who are richer and more powerful than you. These efforts include such things as damages caps, arbitration clauses and unscrupulous attempts to stack state supreme courts with anti-plaintiff judges.
I don’t want to spoil the entire film for you (because I want you to watch it), but I do want you to know what you’ll be missing if you don’t. If you want to avoid significant spoilers, click here to jump to a discussion of the documentary’s overall message.
The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case – Things You Probably Didn’t Know
On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old Albuquerque, N.M resident, received third degree burns to her thighs, buttocks and groin when she spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee into her lap. Most people assume that she was driving at the time, which is untrue. Her grandson, Chris, had driven the car through the McDonald’s drive thru, and he pulled the car into a parking space and had stopped so that he and Stella could add milk and sugar to their coffee before departing. The car, a 1989 Ford Probe, had no cup holders or other flat surfaces upon which the cup could be rested, so Stella placed the cup between her legs and held it steady with one hand so that she could remove the lid. While trying to remove the lid, Stella spilled the entire contents of the cup into her lap, resulting in severe third degree burns which required skin grafts to treat. The documentary shows photos of the burns, which look more like burns one would receive if someone shoved a burning torch into your crotch.
Stella tried to resolve the matter with McDonald’s before obtaining a lawyer. She only wanted McDonald’s to pay the portion of her roughly $10,000.00 in medical bills which were not covered by Medicare. McDonald’s refused, offering only $800.00 to settle her claim. Stella then retained a lawyer and sued McDonald’s for negligence, due to the temperature at which it served its coffee: between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit (which was in accordance with McDonald’s national franchisee policy). Coffee at this temperature is capable of causing third degree burns to exposed skin in a matter of seconds.
The jury found that both McDonald’s and Stella were negligent, allocating 20% of the fault to Stella and 80% to McDonald’s. It awarded Stella $160,000.00 in compensatory damages ($200,000.00 total compensatory damages, reduced by 20% due to Stella’s own negligence) and $2.7 million in punitive damages (roughly the value of 2 days’ of McDonald’s profits from coffee sales). The trial judge reduced the amount of punitive damages to $480,000.00. The case was confidentially settled while pending appeal. So, no, Stella didn’t get millions. Not even $1 million.
Hot Coffee shows how this relatively minor lawsuit was conflated into “all that is wrong with the American civil justice system” by the tort reform lobby, with a large assist by the news media, who were either too lazy or corrupt to get the facts of the case straight. If you come away from watching this film thinking that Stella Liebeck was a crass opportunist looking to get rich from a frivolous lawsuit, you weren’t paying attention.
Hot Coffee’s Other Main Subjects
In addition to the McDonald’s case, Hot Coffee’s other main topics are: tort damage caps, arbitration clauses and the concerted effort to stack state supreme courts with anti-plaintiff judges. Each of these subjects is presented by showing the effects of these tort reform efforts on real people.
Tort Damage Caps
On the subject of tort damage caps, the film tells the story of a Nebraska couple who gave birth to twin sons, one who was perfectly healthy, the other who was born with severe physical and mental disabilities. The couple’s OB/GYN had negligently failed to recognize a problem during the pregnancy which only occurs in cases involving twins with one placenta. This was despite the mother complaining to the doctor that she felt something was wrong with the pregnancy. When the OB/GYN’s partner discovered the problem days later, the mother was rushed to the hospital, where a delay in performing an emergency C-section (she waited 2 hours, while the standard of care demanded it be done within 10 minutes of her arrival) caused further oxygen deprivation to one of her twins.
This couple won their medical malpractice lawsuit, but were shocked to learn that their damages would be limited to a fraction of what the jury awarded, due to an arbitrary state tort damages cap. Their disabled son required lifelong medical care, including multiple surgeries, for which the jury awarded them $5.6 million. Under Nebraska’s “tort reform” damages cap, which applied to both economic (medical bills, wage loss) and non-economic (pain and suffering) damages, they could only receive $1.25 million. The trial judge ruled that the Nebraska law capping damages was unconstitutional, as it deprived the plaintiffs of their right to a jury trial. This ruling was later overturned by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which held that the cap was valid. This couple must now raise their disabled son with less than 1/4 of the money necessary to provide him the care he needs.
Stacking State Supreme Court Benches
In order to protect their statutory damages caps, the tort reform lobby realized that it needed to stack state supreme courts with judges who favored the rights of businesses over individuals. Hot Coffee puts a human face on this effort by telling the story of Oliver Diaz, a former Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice who was targeted by the tort reform lobby because he was perceived as “pro-plaintiff.” When the tort reform lobby, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could not defeat Diaz through the election process (despite an expensive and amoral smear campaign), Diaz was targeted by federal prosecutors under the Bush administration for bogus bribery and tax evasion charges. Although Diaz was acquitted of all criminal charges, they had kept him off the bench for almost 3 years and tarnished his reputation enough that he lost his next re-election bid. If this sounds like the nefarious plot of a John Grisham novel, it is. Grisham wrote “The Appeal” based on Diaz, and he appears in the film as well.
In Hot Coffee, the human face of the dangers of arbitration clauses is Jamie Leigh Jones, an attractive 19-year-old woman who worked for KBR/Halliburton in Houston during Operation: Iraqi Freedom. Jamie agreed to work in Iraq with the understanding that she would be housed in a trailer complex surrounded by other female employees. When she arrived in Iraq, she was surprised to learn that she would in fact be housed in a nearly all-male barrack. She contacted her supervisors back in Houston expressing her concerns over the living situation and asking to be moved into the living situation she had been promised. The company’s response to her was “get over it.”
Jamie claims that four days after her arrival in Iraq, she was drugged, beaten and brutally gang-raped by several male co-workers. After receiving treatment for her injuries from an army doctor, a rape kit was administered and turned over to KBR/Halliburton security. Parts of that kit subsequently went missing. Jamie stated that she was taken by 2 KBR security officers to what was essentially a shipping container, and held as a prisoner there until a congressman intervened and had the Department of State send federal agents to retrieve her.
At the time Hot Coffee was made, Jamie’s employment contract with Halliburton, which contained a mandatory arbitration clause, prevented her from suing her employer over the alleged rape. The film shows some of her efforts to bring a civil lawsuit and avoid being forced into arbitration, which is conducted in secret and often before an arbitrator who is biased towards the business that required the arbitration clause. Subsequent to the making of the film, Jamie was able to pursue her civil lawsuit, which she lost. The civil lawsuit brought to light many discrepancies in Jamie’s version of events, calling into question much of what she says in Hot Coffee. The major problems with her case are addressed in this excellent article from Mother Jones.
Despite the questionable credibility of Jamie Leigh Jones, the point that Hot Coffee makes about arbitration clauses is no less valid in light of her having lost her civil suit. In fact, it may be strengthened. Hot Coffee argues that arbitration is inherently unfair because it is a closed, secretive proceeding often conducted before a biased arbitrator, with limited to no recourse for the loser. Civil trials are superior because they are open, heard before an (arguably) unbiased jury, and allow for appeals. If Jamie Leigh Jones lost her claim against Halliburton in arbitration, no one would have known why (due to confidentiality), and many would have presumed that it was solely due to bias by the hearing officer. Having this case tried in a civil court allowed the public to see the evidence and know exactly why a jury ruled in favor of Halliburton. So KBR/Halliburton, who fought strenuously for years to keep this matter out of a civil court, may be the biggest beneficiaries of the case having been tried there. So the film’s point that arbitration=bad/civil trial=good holds up even when the plaintiff loses her civil trial.
The point of Hot Coffee is to show the importance of civil jury trials in holding people and businesses accountable for their wrongdoing, and to warn of the efforts by big business and the tort reform lobby to limit or entirely remove this means of seeking redress. Those with money and power will always have greater access to the legislative and executive branches of government than you. The judicial branch, due to jury trials, is the only level playing field left — where the size of the party’s wallet does not determine the outcome (argue all you want about high-priced lawyers, but they lose every day to scrappy, low-priced lawyers).
Ironically, those who most frequently argue in favor of “personal responsibility” and “free markets” seem to be the most vehement opponents to civil jury trials. Shouldn’t tortfeasors be held personally responsible for their wrongdoing? Aren’t lawsuits part of the free market?
Misinformation campaigns, such as those conducted after the McDonald’s hot coffee case, prime the public for “tort reform” measures that unfairly punish victims, shield wrongdoers from their own bad behavior, and inch us ever closer to a country in which the bottom 98% earners will be left no branch of government from which to seek redress when we are wronged.
Tort reformers argue that damages caps are necessary because you can’t trust juries to award a fair amount of damages. One of the best points made in the film is that you never hear these tort reformers claim that juries can’t be trusted to decide death penalty cases. Do these people think that human life is less of a concern than a potential large money damage award?
When tort reforms saw damage caps being invalidated in state courts on constitutional grounds, their efforts turned to buying state supreme court judges, who would be the ultimate authority as to whether these caps would apply. If a justice didn’t play ball, he would be removed by any means necessary.
Hot Coffee shows that there is an ongoing, multi-pronged attack to try to take away your rights. When deciding which side you’re on with respect to the tort reform issue, ask yourself what you would want the law to be if you suffered a horrific injury due to the negligence of another. Would you want a cap on your damages? Would you want a biased state supreme court? Would you want your claim to be forced into a secret arbitration instead of a jury trial? Don’t vote against your own self-interest.