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.”
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 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.
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.