Coffee & Tort Reform

by Charles Miller

Susan Saladoff’s “Hot Coffee” documentary on HBO brings much-needed balance to the tort reform debate.

Since the 1980s, business groups have been conducting a well-orchestrated public relations campaign to convince the public – and our elected officials – that the civil justice system is out of control and needs reforming.  One of the most effective weapons in the business community’s tort reform efforts is to misrepresent the facts of a real court case to make the result seem outrageous.

The best-known example of this is the McDonald’s hot coffee case.    The business community was so effective at misrepresenting the facts of the McDonald’s coffee case that the case continues to be one of the most commonly cited examples of the need for
tort reform.  “Hot Coffee” tells the whole story of the McDonald’s case and explains how the business community distorted the facts of the case to promote their tort-reform agenda.  In addition, “Hot Coffee” explains how damage caps and arbitration clauses have unfairly limited the rights of injured people.

When most people think of the McDonald’s coffee case, they remember the news headlines and jokes about a woman who was awarded millions of dollars for spilling hot coffee on herself in the car.  But most people don’t know know what really happened in the case.  “Hot Coffee” puts the case in perspective by explaining:

  • That Stella Lieibeck, the 79 year-old woman who was injured by the hot coffee, was not driving the car;
  • The car was parked when the injury occurred;
  • McDonald’s brewed the coffee that injured Ms. Liebeck between 180 and 190 degrees;
  • Before Ms. Liebeck was injured, McDonald’s knew that over 700 other people had been burned by its coffee;
  • Ms. Liebeck received third degree burns that required an 8-day hospital stay and extensive skin grafts; and
  • Although the jury awarded Ms. Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages, the judge reduced the punitive damage award to $480,000 and the case ultimately settled.

As “Hot Coffee” demonstrates, the advocates of tort reform take a kernel of truth –
such as a $2.7 million punitive damage award in a case involving spilled coffee – but leave out the facts that make the outcome of the case seem reasonable.  “Hot Coffee” does an excellent job of telling the other side of the hot coffee case.