HBO is airing through late July the documentary Hot Coffee about the tort “reform” industry that used the famous 1994 case of Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc. and McDonald’s International, Inc. as a synonym for court abuse. The plaintiff sued McDonald’s for damages resulting from being scalded by hot coffee served at a temperature of 180–190 °F resulting in third-degree burns. The story may be familiar as it became symbolic for frivolous claims. But there is more to the story as the documentary shows the publicity campaign that influenced public opinion to view the case as a symbol of frivolous claims. The trailer is here.
“Hot Coffee” addresses complicated legal arguments in the Liebeck and other cases with greater detail than proponents of tort reform provide. For example, the Liebeck trial testimony showed that at 180 to 190 °, McDonald’s coffee was hotter than that served by other restaurants, that it received at least 700 complaints about hot coffee in the previous decade and paid more than half a million dollars in settlements, as reported in a 1994 Wall Street Journal article A Matter of Degree: How a Jury Decided That a Coffee Spill Is Worth $2.9 Million — McDonald’s Callousness Was Real Issue, Jurors Say, In Case of Burned Woman — How Hot Do You Like It?
Plaintiff’s injuries included third-degree burns on her thighs and groin area for which she was hospitalized for a week and had to undergo painful skin grafts. Before suing, she wrote McDonald’s requesting that it cover her uninsured medical bills and incidental costs of about $20,000. McDonald’s offered $800. A mediator recommended that McDonald’s pay a settlement of $225,000 but the company refused. After a seven day trial, jurors awarded the plaintiff $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. After the verdict, the trial judge slashed the punitive damages by more than 80% to $480,000. The case settled for an undisclosed amount.
The BLS Library has in its collection Products Liability and Basic Tort Law by Martin Alan Kotler (Call # KF1296 .K68 2005) which discusses the effort to carve out separate spheres for tort and contract law and the (largely political) impetus for tort and products liability reform in the courts, state legislatures and Congress. Gerald L. Shargel, a Practitioner-in-Residence at Brooklyn Law School, recently wrote in a Daily Beast article titled Scalding Takedown on Tort Reform saying that the film maker Susan Saladoff shows that the aim of the “reformers” is to shield large corporations and medical professionals from being held accountable.