Product Liability

Hot Coffee: Documentary shows how consumer rights are attacked

Hot Coffee, a new documentary about the famous McDonald’s coffee case that left an elderly woman with serious burns, has been selected to premier at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, director Susan Saladoff announced yesterday.

The film will revisit the 1994 lawsuit filed by 79-year-old Albuquerque resident Stella Liebeck, who two years earlier was severely injured when a cup of scalding coffee spilled on her lap. Liebeck was a passenger in her nephew’s car when she positioned the cup of coffee between her knees so she could remove the lid and add cream and sugar.

Back then, McDonald’s required its franchises to serve coffee at 180–190 degrees, which is hot enough to cause third-degree burns in as little as 2 seconds. McDonald’s knew better than to serve coffee hot enough to cause third-degree burns, especially when it was routinely served from the drive-through window to motorists. 700 burn cases involving McDonald’s coffee were reported in the 10 years preceding Liebeck’s accident.

When her coffee spilled, Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants, which absorbed and held the scalding liquid against her skin. She was taken to the emergency room, where doctors found she had third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. She was hospitalized for more than a week while she underwent skin grafting – a process so painful that Liebeck lost nearly 20 pounds of her body weight. She also had to receive medical treatment for her wounds for years afterward.

Liebeck sued McDonald’s over the incident, arguing that their coffee was excessively hot and therefore defective. The jury awarded her $2.86 million, but the amount was later reduced to $480,000 on appeal.

As the documentary Hot Coffee shows, the incident occurred at just the right time for corporate lobbyists, who were pushing federal legislation to limit the consumers’ right to go to court. Tort reformists and other special interests cast the case in a negative light, effectively publicizing it as an example of a frivolous lawsuit and making Liebeck look like an irresponsible money-hungry opportunist and extortionist.

“This gives the impression that the court system is being treated as a lottery of some sort,” said Joanne Doroshow, the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Democracy.

The campaign against Liebeck paid off. She was ridiculed, mocked, and vilified for years after the trial and many trials in subsequent years have been publicized as frivolous even when the claims were fair and legitimate.

“Access to the courts is one of the most precious rights the American people have,” said Joan Claybrook, warning that ordinary citizens need to remain vigilant of any attempts by corporations to strip consumers of their rights.

Had McDonald’s done the right thing by ceasing to serve their coffee at dangerous temperatures, Liebeck wouldn’t have had to spend her later years in agony and embarrassment.