'Hot Coffee' Documentary Tackles Tort Reform Misconceptions

Kim LaCapria

Do you remember that lady in the 90's who was awarded a millions-of-dollars settlement from McDonald's because she stupidly spilled coffee all over her crotch, not realizing it was coffee and hot?

The case has become something of a legal touchstone when discussing frivolous lawsuits. Except... the lawsuit wasn't really frivolous. The woman was seriously injured, and the company had not only been warned several times about overly hot coffee, it had also quietly paid people off who had been similarly injured by the same avoidable circumstance. The woman sustained third degree burns over 6% of her body, was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafts to repair the damage. Furthermore, it was discovered, more than 700 other individuals had been burned by coffee kept far too hot at McDonald's in the ten year period between 1982 and 1992.

No one will ever know precisely how that case shook out, because the plantiff eventually settled with McDonald's for an undisclosed sum. But its legacy is a public wary of business being bankrupted by a lawsuit happy public. A new documentary that attempts to dispel these myths titled Hot Coffee is set to air on HBO, and personal injury attorney Susan Saladoff, the creator, spoke about the dangers of limiting consumer recourse in these situations:

The film, which took two years to make, highlights cases in which caps on punitive damages and mandatory arbitration have left the plaintiffs in financial and emotional straits. At the same time, Saladoff weaves in interviews with tort reform supporters, including Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, and with opponents, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken and author John Grisham.