When people think of frivolous lawsuits, most instantly think of the burn injury lawsuit brought by Stella Liebeck against McDonald’s. However, “Hot Coffee,” an HBO documentary, asks viewers to rethink their perceptions of the McDonald’s lawsuit and exposes several other misconceptions about additional types of legal matters.
The HBO documentary is named for the personal injury lawsuit resulting from the third degree burns the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, sustained after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. However, what is controversial about the film is that rather than framing Liebeck as an example of an overzealous American suing a company for insignificant injuries, “Hot Coffee” frames Liebeck as a case of the little guy versus the big, bad company.
For example, the documentary includes the little mentioned fact that the plaintiff did not rush to sue McDonald’s Corporation. Rather, she first asked them to pay her out-of-pocket medical expenses she accrued as a result of her severe burns, an injury one would typically not expect simply from spilling coffee. It was only after McDonald’s refused any liability and denied her request for reimbursement of medical expenses that Liebeck hired a lawyer.
Again, much of the outrage Americans attach to the McDonald’s coffee case revolve around a perception that a person was seeking outrageous damages just because they spilled a little hot coffee on their lap. However, it was the jury and not Ms. Liebeck, that awarded the unprecedented high damages to the plaintiff. Outraged by McDonald’s arrogant denial of any wrongdoing and horrified by the graphic photographs documenting the extent of Ms. Liebeck’s burns, the jury awarded additional punitive damages as a means of punishing McDonald’s for Ms. Liebeck’s burn injury.
However, the judge did eventually reduce the high jury verdict and the burn injury case was eventually settled out of court. Therefore, even though the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit has been appropriated as an example of frivolous lawsuits that unnecessarily tie up our legal system, “Hot Coffee” offers a different perspective. Instead, Liebeck is framed as an example of the legal system working to protect individual interests in the face of a large company’s negligence.
However, the film does not stop there, but goes on to tackle some other controversial legal issues. For example, defense attorneys and medical professionals have long supported placing caps on medical malpractice damages. However, “Hot Coffee” offers the example of Lisa and Mike Gourley, a Nebraska couple that filed a medical malpractice lawsuit after their son, Colin, suffered cerebral palsy as a result of a birth injury. The Nebraska jury returned a $5.6 million verdict against the defendant hospital that was meant to cover Colin’s lifelong medical expenses. However, Nebraska has a cap of $1.25 million on any medical malpractice lawsuit; therefore, the Gourley’s verdict was reduced to the maximum allotment. While $1.25 million is still a lot of money, it is hardly enough to cover the regular medical expenses for a child with cerebral palsy.
In addition, the documentary exposes the increasingly common practice of hiding mandatory arbitration clauses in various types of contracts. When an individual signs a contract, whether for medical treatment, employment, or other reasons, companies are beginning to include a clause that precludes the individual from filing a lawsuit against the company. In Illinois, there has been much debate about the inclusion of these mandatory arbitration clauses in nursing home contracts, which prevent the residents from filing nursing home negligence lawsuits, regardless of the degree of negligence.
To illustrate the downside of these binding arbitration clauses, “Hot Coffee” focuses on a Texas lawsuit filed by Jamie Leigh Jones. When entering into her employment with KBR, Jones had signed an employee contract in order to complete the hiring process. However, that employment contract also included a binding arbitration clause where Jones unknowingly agreed not to file any lawsuits against her employer. But then Jones was raped while working in Iraq for KBR and attempted to bring a lawsuit against her employer. While that case is now finally being heard in Texas, it was initially blocked as a result of the arbitration clause Jones signed. This type of preventive action by companies essentially makes them immune from legal responsibility, a fact which those opposed to these mandatory arbitration clauses regularly point out.
The documentary demonstrates a mastery of the subtleties of a wide range of legal issues, a fact that can most likely be attributed to the fact that the director has a legal background. Prior to making documentaries, Susan Saladoff was a trial lawyer and has served as the president of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. While Saladoff has received favorable reviews for her directorial debut, she has also been criticized for presenting a biased viewpoint that favors trial lawyers. However, considering the high power lobbyist that tend to represent the interests of potential defendants, it seems that the viewpoint Saladoff offers is often ignored.
The official trailer for Hot Coffee:
Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury lawsuits for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Maywood, Brookfield, LaGrange, Orland Park, and Palatine.
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