Hot Coffee: New Documentary Exposes the True Story of Tort Reform

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Recent Supreme Court decisions have chipped away at the right of consumers to seek justice in class actions when they are wronged by corporations. They have granted big businesses the ability to donate unlimited sums of money, anonymously, to political campaigns. They have protected corporations from facing consequences for polluting the environment. And they have ensured that the makers of generic pharmaceuticals cannot be held liable for damages caused by their products. The last two terms of the Supreme Court have rightly been called the most big-business friendly period in the history of our country’s highest court. The decisions mentioned above have certainly done damage to the rights of consumers in America. However, sometimes the most serious damage to consumers’ rights has been done with a little help from the consumers themselves. A fascinating new documentary by a former plaintiffs’ attorney tells the story of how this came to be.

“Jackpot Justice”, “Runaway Juries”, and “Frivolous Lawsuits”. These phrases came to be the rallying cries of what seemed to be a grassroots movement in the 1990s and early 2000’s. These slogans were repeated endlessly in the name of “tort reform”, in what was essentially a corporate ad campaign for the wholesale re-shaping of the American civil justice system. Have you ever heard the one about the little old lady who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself while driving, and won millions of dollars by suing the company? Of course you have. A very specific version of her story was repeated thousands of times, like a children’s fable designed to impart a moral lesson through repetition.  Comedians joked about it. News anchors repeated the myth in mocking tones. And the narrative was accepted and agreed upon. Our civil justice system was out of control. People were trying to get rich by pursuing frivolous lawsuits, and runaway juries were granting that wish. If anyone questioned those notions, one could just mention the little old lady who became a millionaire because her coffee was hot. Argument over.

The problem, it turns out, is that not many people knew the real story. The little old lady was not driving. She was parked. She was sitting in the passenger seat. And the coffee? It was kept at 190 degrees, 70 degrees hotter than any normal coffee maker would get to, and hot enough to cause 3rd degree burns on contact. Which, in fact, it did. The burns required skin grafts. Over 700 people had already been burned similarly by McDonald’s coffee. The little old lady did not become a millionaire. She had not even wanted to go to court, but for McDonald’s to cover her medical bills. They refused, and insisted on litigation. The facts of this case are so different from the popular perception of what happened that it makes one wonder how we were all so deceived.

“Hot Coffee” is a new documentary airing on HBO which explores the infamous McDonald’s coffee claim, and 3 other cases, to show how big business interests have manipulated public perception to support a drastic transformation of our nation’s civil justice system. Large corporations spent enormous sums of money to bombard the media with messages from seemingly grass-roots organizations devoted to so-called “tort reform”. By repeating buzzwords endlessly, and presenting a decidedly one-sided narrative of an out-of-control justice system, these corporations were able to effectively re-arrange the landscape of civil justice in America. These political “spin” techniques were so effective that millions of Americans bought into the idea of “tort reform”, “runaway juries”, and “jackpot justice”. The problem is, when one of those Americans is now suffering as a result of corporate negligence or wrongdoing, they find their ability to seek justice through the court system has been significantly diminished.

“Hot Coffee” is a sobering look at what has been happening to civil justice in America over the past decade. Plaintiffs’ rights attorneys like Colling Gilbert Wright & Carter fight every day to help average citizens seek justice when they are harmed by the negligence or wrongdoing of enormously powerful corporate interests. It is one of the most admirable qualities of our justice system that all litigants- powerful or weak, rich or poor- are on equal footing in the eyes of the law. This level playing field has been increasingly tilted in recent years, to protect powerful interests from liability for their own actions (or failures to act). The fact that average Americans have been duped into supporting measures which restrict their access to the justice system is regrettable. The information presented in “Hot Coffee” makes a huge first step towards educating the public on what so-called “tort reform” has actually accomplished. 

“Hot Coffee” is showing now on HBO. For those without premium cable, many good video clips and interviews of the people involved can be found here.