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Hot Coffee

You know all about the McDonald's "Hot Coffee" lawsuit, right? Bet you don't
Stella Liebeck, 3rd degree burns from McDonald's coffee
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If you thought you knew all about the McDonald's "Hot Coffee" lawsuit, you are dead wrong. I was like you. I thought, "Greedy old woman, don't you know coffee is hot? Why do you think you deserve millions of dollars for spilling coffee on yourself?"

The 2011 HBO documentary Hot Coffee, directed by Susan Saladoff, focuses on Big Business attempts and successes in controlling the judicial system in limiting the amount of damages that can be paid out to individuals for their wrong-doing and/or neglect.

Hot Coffee is split into four sections, discussing various methods of tort reform used by big business to control the government and the United States judicial system.

Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants

The famous case of the greedy old woman who wanted to get rich because she spilled coffee on herself... Everyone knows it... Or do you?

Stella Liebeck received 3rd degree burns on her thighs (pictured above, screenshot taken from Hot Coffee) when she opened a cup of coffee to add cream and sugar. Liebeck was not driving, she was parked and sitting in the passenger seat. It was McDonald's policy to "hold" coffee at a temperature of 190°.

Liebeck and her family simply asked McDonald's to pay for medical expenses not covered by health insurance and Medicare. McDonald's refused.

Upon hearing the case and reviewing endless accounts of serious burns to customers, the jury awarded Liebeck $2.86 million, equivalent to two days worth of coffee sales. The judge determined this amount too high and reduced the amount to $480,000.

This case launched tort and tort reform into the public eye with the media and government turning Ms. Liebeck into the villain. This case also prompted big business to create many groups and organizations, posing as grass-roots "citizen" movements to control "frivolous lawsuits."

Colin Gourley

A Nebraska couple was pregnant with twins. Due to neglect from doctors, one child was born with severe brain damage due to lack of oxygen and other issues during pregnancy.

A jury awarded the Gourley family $5.6 million dollars in their malpractice lawsuit, an amount $400,000 less than economists predicted it would cost to care for Colin for his entire life. The jury was unaware of a punitive damages cap in place in the state of Nebraska. The settlement was reduced to $1.25 million.

This section of the film explores the idea/beliefs that states with caps on damages in malpractice suits, especially, will see a decrease in the cost of health care. This proves to be untrue, only protecting malpractice insurance companies.

Oliver Diaz

Oliver Diaz was a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice who traditionally sided with citizens rather than business. Diaz's opponent in a re-election campaign was backed by  the US Chamber of Commerce (big business) for well above $10 million dollars.

The election came down to a run-off. In this runoff, Diaz obtained a loan for the run-off campaign, co-signed by a long-time friend. Diaz won the office, but was later indicted for accepting bribes and tax evasion, among countless additional charges. His long-time friend was a lawyer. Diaz never presided over a single case involving his friend's firm.

Diaz was acquitted on all counts, but lost a  large amount of his time as Justice, being in court as a defendant. Diaz subsequently lost his next re-election campaign.

This section addresses the ability of businesses to hide their campaign contributions by going through so-called "citizen groups" and their successful attempts to ruin the careers of judges and Justices throughout the country through funding business-friendly judges and prompting indictments on judges who are not overwhelmingly pro-business.

Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton

An employee of Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, Jamie Leigh Jones joined Project Iraqi Freedom. During her time in Iraq, Jones was drugged and gang-raped by KBR employees.

In her contract with KBR, Jones agreed to Mandatory Arbitration, foregoing any rights to pursue legal action against Halliburton in court. Halliburton ignored Jones's allegations, telling her she can either quit or go back to work.

Jones Leigh Jones eventually got her day in court with great assistance from Minnesota Senator Al Franken.

Don't think you would agree to Mandatory Arbitration? You're wrong. Read the fine-print of you cell phone contract, your rental agreement, your car lease and many, many other contracts/agreements.

This section addresses the ability of big business to control customers through mandatory arbitration. When a customer/employee agrees to arbitration, the arbitrator is chosen by the business. Arbitration is an inherently bias system. An arbitrator will only see the business's customer one time, but they want to keep businesses happy to ensure businesses will return to them for all their arbitration needds.

My View

In 2003, I sat on the jury for the civil case of World Wrestling Entertainment v. Lewmar, Ltd., a British boating and yachting equipment manufacturing company, regarding the wrongful death lawsuit of wrestler Owen Hart, who fell from the rafters of Kemper Arena during a pay-per-view event.

Hart's family sued WWE and everyone else with any ties to the event. WWE settled with the family for $18 million, but retained the rights to counter-sue any of the other parties named in the original lawsuit. WWE's argument was that the latch used on the rig used to lower Hart into the ring was defective.

To the point: During  the jury selection process, contradicting questions regarding "frivolous lawsuits" were asked of 160 or so prospective jurors. I do not recall the specific questions, but lawyers asked me, and only me, to elaborate upon my responses. Apparently, I was the only person in the jury pool who believed a lawsuit cannot be deemed "frivolous" until all the facts about the case have been reviewed.

When government puts limitations on the decision making abilities of the jury, it tells citizens the legal system is a joke and cannot be trusted. The system is designed to hold those accountable who have done wrong, this is to be determined by citizens themselves, not corporations and political agendas

Since you may be wondering: Lewmar, Ltd. and WWE settled for $9 million, an equal split of liability after six weeks in trial.

Travis Pflanz

I am a web designer and SEO specialist. I enjoy writing about everything from movies to Kansas City sports to food & cooking and I like to give away lots of free movie tickets! I recently produced and starred in the award winning short zombie comedy Dough of the Dead and I am an administrator for the horror fan club Slasher Nation.

  • Johnny O’Hannah

    I don't know anything about the other cases (will research) but in the case of Liebeck vs McDonalds I still contend she doesn't deserve a dime. The extent of her injuries whether it be 1,2,3rd degree burns is irrelevant, McDonalds irrelevant, she took the lid off and she spilled her coffee between her legs, end of story. So if my next door neighbor comes over and says "Hey John, can I a grab a coffee from you I don't have time to stop at Starbucks" Sure Scott, help your self in the kitchen and have a great day see you after work. Scott then spills the coffee in the front seat of his car between his legs, do you really think I owe him 2.8 million??? Idiotic??

    I'm sure your rebuttal will be " it was too hot" or "others complained they were burned. Of course ...ITS COFFEE its a hot drink!!

    I'm going to sue GE because I burned my hand on my stove..."it was too hot" they could have it warm food with being so hot right.

    There is NO PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY in this country and Americans always look to "blame someone" as a result we have become a fat, dumb, lazy, country that blames instead of accepting responsibility. Life is tough, people get hurt, people die...... force majeure.

    • http://webworksofkc.com Travis Pflanz

      Johnny, thanks for the comment.

      I recommend you watch the documentary. It is about much more than "Hot Coffee" or any of the other individual cases listed. Ultimately, the film is about big business being able to control the judicial system.

      Regarding the Leibeck case, I think anyone who believes they are familiar" or "know all about it," would benefit from actually hearing the other side... Which isn't something that was possible, due to settlement agreements, until she passed away recently.

      Actually, I am quite shocked how many people see a report/story on the news, yet never consider the other side, or consider the bias of the network, or the writer, or the anchor person... Critial thinking is a skill (if not the most important skill) taught in high school, yet so few Americans actually implement this skill set as adults.

      • Rich

        Living in the UK, I never got to see said documentary. However, I know that I still wouldn't agree with the fact that Leibeck got any damages at all.
        I can't possibly see how "the other side" could make any difference. The fact still remains that she willingly sat in her car, willingly took the lid of of her coffee and accidentally spilled it down her own thighs. McDonalds had absolutely no part to play in her accident. Not to mention the fact that she knew it would be hot... otherwise she would have went somewhere else to get an iced variety instead.
        Maybe McDonalds restaurants should simply start serving cold coffee, customers can warm them up at their own convenience and avoid such stupid accidents.
        I know what would have happened if this had came in front of a UK judge, she would have been made to pay costs for both sides and have been laughed out of the court room.

    • Melissa

      @Johnny O'Hannah..Idiotic....IS putting your hand to an eye on on a stove that was MADE to COOK food!! Idiotic is serving some one a drink that is hot enough(actually HOTTER) to poach an egg in!!! I don't think, Sorry...I KNOW your HOME coffee pot doesn't even brew coffee at 180 degrees!!! idiotic? Yes I think you are!!

      • Rich

        Erm... I think Johnny O'Hannah is probably being sarcastic, been as you seem not to understand what this means, here goes: "the use of remarks which clearly mean the opposite of what they say, and which are made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way" (Cambridge dictonaries online).
        So, he isn't intending to sue anyone, he's simply trying to show how laughable the idea of suing someone because they spilt their own drink down them is.

    • Wake Wagner

      Personal Accountability goes both ways...

      It is not so much the end of story... the product that McDonalds sold was so hot that if you actually took a sip it would kill you... I don;t know about you but I don;t consider a liquid that can kill you "coffee" i consider it dangerous!

      The thing is "personal accountability" goes bot ways... here McDonalds put out something proported to be coffee but was too hot to drink and was so hot it would give you 3rd degree burns. (btw the coffee at your house is no where near that temp)

      the did so intentionally to save money... and knew it had a propensity to give grievous injuries. But your position is they should not pay... just by buying the product your accepting it as is and let the injuries fall where they may? WHERE IS THE PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY for McDonalds IN THAT?

      btw... wht did McDonalds really get out of this... well they turned down the temp.. they started making fresh coffee throughout the day instead of superheated "coffee" once... they became knows as having good fresh coffee and now, playing off that, even gone into the McCafe business... netting 100s of millions... POOR POR MCDONALDS!!!!!

    • Bill Harris

      Spoken like a typical Republican zombie. ("Zombie", because no matter how many truth-bullets hit them, the lies never die.)

      The point of damages is not to enrich people, it's to send a message to companies: If you commit bad acts, you will pay a price. Did you miss the part about 2.86M being only TWO DAYS of coffee sales to McDonalds's?

      • Skylar

        In response to Bill Harris. Very disappointing to see anyone immediately jump to a comment like "republican zombie". Makes you sound like an idiot seeing as how political affiliation was not mentioned in even one of the previous comments regarding the hot coffee debate. Believe it or not, but you made any useful information you had to share completely invalid because of your hateful comments. Try to stick to valid information instead of personal attacks. Your eagerness to be hateful is absolutely disgusting. Grow up.

  • stg

    @Johnny O'Hannah
    I'd like to point out that the Liebeck incident took place in 1992. Cupholders in vehicles were not standard until 1996. Where should she have put her coffee?

  • Adam Haskins

    web designer you say? why do my eyes have lines burned into them after reading your text? terrible typography. good content though.

  • Sarah Nickel

    I watched this documentary yesterday morning and was changed forever in my thoughts on the importance of the judicial system, the corrupt nature of big business and their influence in America. I feel the same way as others about people filing lawsuits on everything under the sun but I also feel it is MOST important to hear both sides of the story before snapping to judgement. I also only ingest about 20% of what I see and hear in news reports since it is mostly to glorify horrific situations. After seeing the wounds Stella endured after spilling that drink I was mortified I ever laughed at her situation or felt she was greedy. To find out she initially asked for money to ONLY pay her medical bills and McDonalds said "No" left me dumbfounded. I judged before I had all of the facts. All of the stories in this documentary left me speechless but more important....informed. When you know better, you do better.

  • Jason

    I never watched or even heard of this documentary, but I know someone who was involved with the case, and they've always loved explaining that the money awarded to Liebeck had NOTHING to do with Liebeck. She was just the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

    McDonald's had been previously warned (due to other similar incidents) that their coffee was too hot, and they needed to lower the temperature. They never did though, because it was more convenient for them this way, plus, people came specifically to get the hottest coffee around.

    The money awarded to Liebeck was a punishment to McDonalds, not an indication that Liebeck deserved it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/james.joyce.75248 James Joyce

    You might want to consider that this documentary is simply propaganda for the other side of the equation: the Trial Lawyers.
    For those who believe that MCD had fair warning - as mentioned in the film - it received 700 complaints on 10 billion cups of coffee or .007%.
    So like many things, most films have an axe to grind

    • http://travis.pflanz.me/ Travis Pflanz

      And I'm sure the jury was made well aware of that percentage... But you may have missed the point of the documentary. The focus is tort reform, not McDonald's