Last night an original documentary film called Hot Coffee debuted on HBO. The film takes its name from the now-infamous legal case in which an elderly woman sued McDonald’s after she was severely burned by hot coffee. But instead of being an example of what is right with the Civil Justice system in America – the ability of the “little guy” to seek justice when faced with corporate wrongdoing and negligence – the agents of so-called “tort reform” were able to spin the case to ridicule the legal system and to undermine the right of the average citizen to have his or her day in court.
The injured woman, Stella Liebeck, was painted by corporate interests as greedy, seeking a big payday for little more than a spilled drink. Hot Coffee provides viewers with more facts, such as stunning photos of Ms. Liebeck’s third-degree burns, which required extensive skin grafts. And case records detailing more than 700 customer reports of being injured after spilling hot coffee on skin, all of which were ignored by the fast-food giant.
The documentary also points out that all Ms. Liebeck initially requested from McDonald’s was assistance with her medical bills, to help her pay what her limited Medicaid coverage would not. The company refused.
When the jury awarded nearly $3 million in punitive damages, what the public didn’t realize was that figure was based on just two days’ worth of coffee sales at the Golden Arches. Just coffee.
What happened next was a spiral of spin that convinced everyday Americans that our justice system is somehow flawed. It convinced taxpayers to vote for caps on damages, which limit the liability of big corporations and insurance companies when their negligence or wanton disregard causes injury. It convinced people that courts should have the power to overturn the decisions of the 12 average men and women who dutifully serve on a jury. It made it possible to get consumers to agree to waive their right to a jury trial at all, through mandatory arbitration clauses.
Big business interests have managed to win the hearts and minds of average people. How?
The civil justice system is a cornerstone of our democracy. The right to trial by an impartial jury – free from influence or persuasion – is the only thing that levels the playing field. Why are we so willing to give up these rights?
For more information, visit the official Hot Coffee documentary website. The film will air on HBO for the next several weeks.