In 1994, a decision in a seemingly innocuous legal case made waves around the country, becoming fodder for “Seinfeld,” late night stand-up routines and editorials around the country, and you probably remember it. A woman in New Mexico was awarded a judgment of $2.86 million dollars after suing McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot. “Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?” seemed to serve as a punchline to numerous jokes, while most just read the headlines in newspapers and assumed it was yet more evidence of a legal system gone out of control. But did you know that the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was 79 years old? Did you know that the burns were so severe she required skin grafts? Did you know that she required two years of medical treatment? Did you know that McDonald’s had actually been quietly settling out of court for years after numerous, similar complaints? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Infuriating, shocking, riveting and one of the best legal documentaries we’ve seen in a long time, Susan Saladoff ‘s “Hot Coffee” uses Liebeck’s lawsuit as a springboard to investigate how the public spin on that case was slowly used to strip the rights of regular citizens, consumers and employees to sue big business.
While Liebeck ultimately didn’t get her nearly $3 million judgment, the case was a giant wake-up call to corporations around the country. The jury had decided that Liebeck was due $200,000 in compensatory damages — to compensate her actual injuries — and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which are often levied as a punishment against defendants for negligent behavior. The amount was two days’-worth of McDonald’s coffee sales nationwide — $1.35 million per day — and while it was later reduced on appeal, the ruling terrified white-collar execs. At the time, there was little in the way of limitations on the damages that plaintiffs could be awarded and something had to be done.
Saladoff’s beautifully presented documentary thus lays out in plain English and in bracingly straightforward terms how top companies banded together to push through “tort reform” — essentially legislated maximum amounts that could be awarded against businesses in lawsuits — how ugly the battle became to push back against those who stood up against those reforms and the repercussions it has had on everyday people. The course of action was to get the public on their side, and suddenly numerous “citizen action” groups against “frivolous lawsuits” were popping up across the country, demonizing the McDonald’s case as a shining example of those “taking advantage” of the courts and warning of the drain on the justice system that these kinds of cases were having, and how even good doctors were afraid to do their job in fear of being sued. Something must be done! Of course, most of these groups were well-funded shell organizations, not much more than websites with very little “grassroot support” about any of them. But the wave caught on and pretty soon the law was passed — thanks to some lobbying to earn the support of George W. Bush (check the great use of footage showing how he steadily pushed the issue through his two terms) — and multiple states began determining caps on damages in legal cases.
From here “Hot Coffee” takes us through three cases, each offering a different perspective on the ramifications this tort reform legislation has had. First we meet the parents of Colin Gourley, their son born with severe mental and physical disabilities due to the negligence of their doctor at the time of his birth, and that of his healthy twin brother Connor. Now suffering from cerebral palsy, and requiring full-time care for the rest of his life, the Gourleys rightfully decided to take their doctor to court for $6 million — their rough estimate of how much it will take to care for Colin for the remainder of his life. They were awarded $5.6 million from a jury, reduced down to a state-mandated $1.25 million and after legal bills are paid, barely half of that has actually been won to take care of their severely disabled child. A wicked irony considering how much “tort reform” advocates claim that baseless proceedings against doctors are the reason for the limits in the first place.
Next, we meet Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi Supreme Court justice who went into his re-election squaring off against an opponent fully funded and financed by the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce. Oh wait, the Chamber Of Commerce? Aren’t they part of the government? Actually, despite their official-sounding name, they are not. Instead, the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce is an elite group of top companies who band together to push through mutually beneficial policies in Washington, and having someone like Diaz — a generally left-wing, anti-big-business judge — on the bench in Mississippi where everyone else leaned right was deemed bad news. So — again with great irony — even though he won his seat, the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce kept him off the bench for literally years with one baseless lawsuit and accusation, after another.
Finally, there is the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a Texan KBR/Halliburton employee who — once again, thanks to tort reform — didn’t realize that when she signed her work contract, she also signed away her right to take her employer to court. So when she was shipped off to Iraq, made to live with male employees (when she had been assured she would bunk with women) and then drugged and gang-raped, her contract stipulated that the matter could only be handled behind closed doors with an arbitrator of KBR/Halliburton’s choosing. She continues to fight her case.
There is a very simple argument made in “Hot Coffee” — that the right to hold accountable employers or companies for how they treat their workers or how they offer services is vital to a democracy. Saladoff easily cuts through the inaccuracies and inconsistencies of those continuing to argue for limits on potential damages (one of the most eye-opening facts is that medical insurance is actually lower in states with no caps, than in states with caps). But moreover, “Hot Coffee” finds the human chord straining to be heard in all these stories and neatly surmises that the policies enacted in a charade that purported to help ordinary people, is actually harming everyday citizens who have been deeply wronged. The slow creep in which “tort reform” was pursued by a powerful lobby and has caused many Americans to sign away their rights is a galling lesson. The legal system is supposed to be the last place in America where everyone enters on an equal footing, but big business has already succeeded in tipping the scales, before you even get in front of the judge. [A]
“Hot Coffee” premieres tonight on HBO at 9 PM.