Susan Saladoff’s documentary Hot Coffee, which offers an unsettling glimpse at the tactics many giant corporations use to strip everyday Americans of some basic rights, has been racking up critical acclaim ahead of its premiere on HBO June 27th.
Hot Coffee centers on the famous McDonald’s coffee incident that left Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident with serious burns. Liebeck was a passenger in her nephew’s car when she positioned a cup of coffee between her knees so she could remove the lid and add cream and sugar. The coffee spilled, giving Ms. Liebeck third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks, and groin. The burns were so severe, doctors at first thought Ms. Liebeck might not survive.
Back in 1994 when the incident occurred, 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. The 700 burn cases involving McDonald’s coffee in the 10 years preceding Liebeck’s accident should have been warning enough, yet they weren’t.
As the documentary shows, Liebeck’s unfortunate incident occurred at the perfect 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 a money-hungry extortionist when she was simply one of hundreds of other McDonald’s customers scalded by the unreasonably hot coffee.
Hot Coffee also features the case of Jamie Lee Jones, a former Halliburton employee who was 20 years old and working as a clerk in Iraq when she was drugged and gang-raped by her coworkers and then locked in a shipping container for more than 24 hours with no water, food, or bed. Ms. Jones has been trying to hold Halliburton and subsidiary company KBR responsible for the attack for six years, but an arbitration clause slipped into the legalese of her employment contract effectively prevented her from holding her employer accountable for the atrocity.
Ms. Jones’ case has been widely held as a litmus test for the future success of forced arbitration as a condition of employment. Finally, after a prolonged six-year battle, Ms. Jones finally had her day in court. Opening statements were given Tuesday by Ms. Jones’ attorney in the case against her former employers.
To view scheduled airings of Hot Coffee on HBO, go here.