Back in 1992 a woman spilled a fresh, hot cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap. Yes, you remember it. She sued McDonald’s and in 1994 a jury awarded her nearly $3 million, $2.7 million of which was punitive damages. Those are the bare, misleading facts — facts that became the basis of a hundred jokes and the prime example in arguments for tort reform against “frivolous law suits.” Over the years, the incident took on a life of its own and became an urban legend. Early in 2011 a documentary about the incident, Hot Coffee, premiered at the Sundance film festival and this summer it appeared on HBO. (The movie was brought to our attention by a post at the always interesting suzannesmomsblog.com)
The documentary’s website says, “Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end.”
The website also points out that “Susan Saladoff (Producer, Director) spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence. She stopped practicing law in 2009 to make the documentary, Hot Coffee, her first feature-length film.” This is a modest way to confess that the documentary is NOT going to be even-handed in its presentation. Indeed, Abnormaluse.com, a website on the other side of the legal issues involved, says that the attorneys interviewed during the documentary were chosen by Susan Saladoff to represent exclusively her own point of view.