Documentary review: "Hot Coffee"

Unaccountable corporations and the trail of human misery

 Back in 1994, I was one of the people who laughed at the idea that a woman would sue McDonalds for being scalded with hot coffee. Obviously, she was just trying to make a buck from a phony law suit. I guess I had been conditioned by too many “can you believe this?” episodes of shows like “60 Minutes” to feel that there could be another side to the story. “Hot Coffee” tells the full and terrifying story of Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old who was horribly burned (you will see the wounds for yourself) by a cup of too-hot coffee. Her burns required numerous painful skin grafts and two years of recovery. Liebeck originally asked for $20,000 to cover her medical costs. MacDonald’s offered her an insultingly low $800. She eventually sued and was awarded $2.7 million, and amount that was reduced on appeal.

 The film tells how the American legal system has been steadily tilted against ordinary litigants in favor of corporations. The system’s constant drumbeat about “tort reform” distorts individual cases to rally the masses against judgments that punish corporations when they seriously injure their customers. One featured case, about Jamie Leigh Jones against Halliburton, arose from her being drugged and gang-raped by fellow employees in Iraq. Due to a mandatory arbitration agreement, she had to fight to get her case heard by anyone but a Halliburton-appointed arbitrator. A family whose infant son’s brain was damaged due to a delay in dealing with a fetal emergency was unable to recoup the costs of his million-dollar lifelong care due to damage caps on awards. In another story, a Mississippi judge who wouldn’t play ball on tort reform was falsely accused of bribery and tax evasion, and had to fight for his reputation in the courts.

 “Hot Coffee” shines a light on the way our system of justice is used to shield corporations from accountability for the actions, to cap awards to victims of their negligence, and to prevent injured families from being able to care for their injured children. It’s also a story of how ordinary citizens are enlisted into the scheme via biased and incomplete media stories. A well-made, disturbing and eye-opening film.