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A DVD We Love: Hot Coffee

by: 
Sunshine, Columbine Library

Hot Coffee examines the effects tort reform is having on the average American’s right to access the U.S. Civil court system.  The documentary is named Hot Coffee after the infamous case Stella Liebeck brought against McDonald’s.  Although the media reported the outcome of the case, they never reported the facts of it.  Here they are:

Stella Liebeck sustained burns while she was the passenger in a stopped car after lifting the lid on her coffee to add cream and sugar.  Liebeck was then hospitalized for eight days with third-degree burns on six percent of her body and needed reconstructive surgery.  Liebeck asked McDonald’s to cover her medical bills; they refused.  Liebeck sued McDonald’s.  During the trial, the jury learned there were over 700 claims against McDonald’s prior to Liebeck’s accident – they learned this from McDonald’s own records.  In other words, McDonald’s knew their coffee was sending hundreds of people to the ER and they did nothing to prevent it from continuing to happen.  The jury awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages to punish McDonald’s.  The jury chose $2.7 million because it equaled two days of McDonald’s coffee sales.  However, the trial court judge reduced the punitive damages from $2.7 million to $480,000 and Liebeck settled for an undisclosed sum.   

Hot Coffee looks at how sensationalized court cases, like Liebeck’s, were used by tort reform advocates to push forward regulations and laws restricting everyday people’s ability to access the courts.  One result has been the rise of mandatory or forced arbitration clauses, which cut off an individual’s access to a jury trial.  Arbitration clauses are now found in the fine print of many contracts you sign: bank accounts, credit cards, gym memberships, leases, employment contracts, etc.  If you want to understand what this means for you, watch Hot Coffee.