Documentary Review: Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee by Shaelyn Dieter – Hot Coffee, directed by Susan Saladoff, follows the timeline of events that unfolded succeeding one of the most misrepresented lawsuits in modern American history and the damage evoked by the media, corporations, and government officials upon such misrepresentation. The documentary travels across the country speaking with politicians, organization leaders, citizens, and professors discussing the legal implications that surround the controversial “tort reform” as they debate the protection of corporations or people in the area of civil lawsuits.
This debate sparked with the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit, in which 79-year-old Stella Liebeck purchased a coffee from McDonald’s, went to add sugar to it while in the passenger seat of a parked car, and proceeded to accidentally spill the coffee on her lap. This incident resulted in gruesome 3rd degree burns and stripped Stella of much of her livelihood. Stella’s family contacted the multi-billion dollar company to request her medical expenses be paid for, but upon denial of this request the family filed a lawsuit, calling for compensation as well as change to the temperature of the coffee at McDonald’s establishments. The jury granted Stella a 2.8-million-dollar settlement, later reduced to only $460,000, but this was not the end of Stella’s story.
Businesses and media alike soon used Stella’s case to advocate against what they considered “frivolous lawsuits,” drastically skewing the public’s picture of the trial from a horrific accident resulting in serious medical expenses and care to a way for citizens to take advantage of the system and sue wealthy corporations for less than serious incidents. The implications of this sort of negative media attention and hopes on the part of business to end such monetary risk then led to a wave of support for tort reform, in which both federal and state governments worked to limit the means by which citizens could file lawsuits against corporations, insurance companies, and medical personnel.
The argument for tort reform went back to money, as politicians such as George W. Bush argued that if insurance companies or medical groups were not responsible or accountable for things such as car crashes and medical malpractice, the lower insurance costs or medical expenses would be for the rest of American citizens. This was rarely the case, and rather than protect citizens monetary interests it stripped many individuals of their right to obtain monetary compensation for instances such as medical malpractice, where many state governments had gone so far as to set statutory caps on the amount of money awarded to victims of medical malpractice, which often times was far from enough to cover the extensive costs victims faced.
Tort reform in many states also allowed for corporations to begin adding mandatory arbitration clauses to employees’ contracts, which stated that employees were not allowed to sue their employer for any damages caused but instead were to settle through arbitration hearings with a party selected by the employer. This created a whirlwind of issues for individuals who were wronged by their employers and led to a lack of accountability on the part of corporations, who were essentially unregulated when it came to unethical practices.
Hot Coffee exposes the corruption and unethical practices behind tort reform and highlighted the importance of giving citizens direct and sparsely regulated access to their civil justice system. Through this, we can ensure that fair, ethical, and just regulations are placed on businesses, medical practices, and insurance companies alike, and that their financial influence on the justice system stays out of the pockets of politicians.
The most important take away for Anthony was the change in McDonald’s policy and procedures. Due to Susan Saladoff’s case, McDonald’s was forced to change their policy and procedures from scolding coffee temperatures that would melt your skin off to a max temperature that will cause less severe skin burns. In the future if someone accidentally spills McDonald’s hot coffee they will not suffer the gruesome injuries suffered by Stella. Families pass coffee to each other when they go thru a drive thru together, so the risk is there, however, thank God for the change in policy and procedures.
***Shaelyn Dieter is a Nevada State College Student earning college credits in exchange for her skills as a filing clerk. As part of her internship program she watched the McDonald’s Hot Coffee documentary and wrote the above piece. When you choose this law firm, you help the community, because we educate people and create jobs in our community. If someone hurts you, because they chose not to follow the safety rules call 702.830.7070 for a free consultation.