Can Hot Coffee Documentary Help Wash Away Tort Reform Assumptions?

Everyone knows about the woman who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot,
right? Over the years it has become the poster child for so-called “frivolous lawsuits” and the “greedy lawyers” who file them. It was a punch line of Seinfeld and Letterman and has evolved into the go-to citation for water cooler conversations about lawsuits happening daily across the country.

But what if I told you 79 year-old Stella Liebeck didn’t just suffer an inconvenient burn to her mouth like most people might assume? What if, instead, I told you she suffered 3rd degree burns on her legs and groin after spilling the coffee as a passenger in a parked car? That she required multiple surgeries and skin grafts to treat her injuries. That Ms. Liebeck’s lawsuit asked for $20,000 in medical expenses and time off work, not the $2.8 million the jury eventually awarded her.

Would it change your mind?

Monday night you’ll have the chance to find out. A new documentary called Hot Coffee takes a closer look at the facts of the case and the very real public relations war that has been waged to influence our thinking about the legal system. It will premiere this coming Monday (June 27) at 8 p.m. CST on HBO.

The film debuted at the Sundance festival earlier this year and has garnered favorable reviews. Variety magazine has called it an “eye-opening indictment of the way big business spins the media,” and after the HBO premier last night, writer Peter Debruge had this to say:

“Hot Coffee” takes the subject of tort reform (yawn, right?) and the Republican assault
against trial lawyers and turns the conversation upside down, emerging as a powerful piece of advocacy journalism that challenges some of the facile imagery of greedy litigants and stupid juries. The memorable case that provides the title — a woman who sued McDonald’s after being scalded by its coffee — is only one of several that served as fodder for both libertarians like John Stossel and late night comics, yet which take on a different hue upon closer inspection.

“You can’t wine and dine juries,” as one lawyer puts it, citing the corrosive influence of
money on other branches of government — and even, increasingly, the judicial system, illustrated in the doc by the well-financed political campaigns waged against judges.

I plan to watch. I hope you do, too. My guess is that we’ll all come away with a new appreciation on how our court system works and who is actually influencing the way we think.

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