Hot Coffee: Documentary Highlights Farce of Tort Reform

Most people over the age of 30 will remember the story of the “McDonald’s coffee case.” In 1992, a 79-year-old woman spilled hot cup of 49-cent coffee on her lap, which had just been handed to her by a fast-food worker at McDonald’s. She suffered severe burns, and sued for damages. coffee

The case of Libeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants was held up by politicians, comedians and large corporations as an example of an out-of-control tort system, whereby a litigious public had run amok with frivolous lawsuits. These entities boiled it all down to a punchline.

But our Boca Raton personal injury lawyers know the Libeck case – and many others that were similarly ridiculed – are much more complex. Many of the facts about this and other cases were manipulated in the public view in an effort to promote tort reform, which ultimately limits the rights of individuals harmed by the negligence of large corporations. These firms have convinced the public that such reform is actually in the public’s best interest.

These facts rae being highlighted in a new documentary entitled, “Hot Coffee,” directed by Susan Saladoff, on sale now on DVD.

The documentary details how, since the 1980s, large companies, including pharmaceutical firms, insurance businesses and tobacco giants, have been engaged in a sophisticated public relations campaign to convince the public there are entirely too many frivolous lawsuits, juries that are completely out-of-control and a civil justice system that’s in dire need of reform. This effort has included half-truths and sometimes outright lies. But it’s been successful!

The hot coffee case is perhaps the best known example. Most people have heard about it, and think the basic facts. After all, how screwed up can a court system be when someone spills coffee on themselves and wins millions suing the person who sold them the coffee?

But there’s a lot more to the story.

The Liebeck case did start with an elderly woman spilling coffee on herself. Here’s what you may not realize: Her injuries were serious. She was required to spend eight days in the hospital. She suffered severe, third-degree burns on more than 16 percent of her body. She had to undergo several skin-grafting surgeries and was rendered disabled for a full two years. She has been scarred forever.

But even these facts alone wouldn’t be enough to justify litigation if she was unable to prove the restaurant was in some way negligent. And in fact, she did so prove. Here are the lesser-known facts of that case:

  • The franchise manual required restaurants to keep their coffee between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit, which the company knew, as had been proven, may cause third-degree burns in 3 to 7 seconds if spilled. Studies had shown beverages served any higher than 130 degrees Fahrenheit could cause serious scalding.
  • The company admitted it knew about the serious burn risk posted by its coffee for the better part of a decade, and it had been sued several times before in numerous other claims.
  • Between 1982 and 1992, hot coffee from McDonald’s resulted in severe burns to more than 700 people. These included infants and children, who in some cases suffered burns by inadvertent spills by employees.
  • The company admitted at trial it knew its coffee was “not fit for consumption” because of the severe burn risk, and had surveyed other coffee services in the area, finding they served their hot beverages 30 and 40 degrees cooler.

But these facts were frequently downplayed or never mentioned in media reports at the time.

The documentary highlights several other anecdotes that underscore how corporate influence twisted the truth about these cases. One of those involves a man who was struck by a drunk driver while in a telephone booth, suffering severe injuries.

Later, President Ronald Reagan, in a speech on tort reform, said, “You might be startled to hear whom he sued: the telephone companies and associate firms!”

While on the surface, this does seem outrageous, there was much more to this case. The fact is, the man was inside the phone booth when he saw the driver approaching erratically. he tried to get out, but the door of the booth jammed. He was trapped. His leg was completely severed. He was left unable to work and unable to walk.

He later sued the phone company because the booth was defective, and had been placed at an intersection known to be hazardous.

That the facts of these and other cases were distorted for the purpose of furthering corporate interests is perhaps not surprising. What’s troubling is how many people have taken the bait.

If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

FAQ About the McDonald’s Coffee Case, Hot Coffee Documentary

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