Have you heard the one about the lady who spilled hot coffee in her lap and sued McDonald’s for millions?
Chances are you have, but like most people, you probably don’t know the real story of what happened to 79-year-old Stella Liebeck.
Instead of receiving the sympathy and compassion her severe injuries merited, Liebeck became a national punch line. She became emblematic of the so-called “frivolous lawsuit,” and the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit became a rallying cry for tort reform.
The documentary “Hot Coffee” by director Susan Saladoff tells the real story of what happened to Stella Liebeck. It also examines the great injustice that has been done to the American civil justice system over the last 25 years at the hands of big business interests.
The Deuterman Law Group is happy to bring this important film to Greensboro. We are sponsoring a free public viewing of the documentary at 7 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Carolina Theatre, followed by a discussion about the movie with the filmmaker Saladoff. Admission is free, and the first will receive a free tote bag and other goodies and knowledge they can take to the polls on Nov. 6.
Thanks to a long-running and well-funded public relations campaign, financed by the tobacco, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, many Americans believe our civil justice system is broken and that so-called “tort reform” is the only thing that can fix it.
They have convinced the public “we have out-of-control juries, too many frivolous lawsuits and a civil justice system that needs reforming,” according to the filmmakers. “They have used anecdotes, half-truths and sometimes out-and-out lies in their efforts, for one purpose – to put limits on people’s access to the court system, the one and only place where an average citizen can go toe to toe with those with money and power and still have a shot at justice.
“Because of the success of the public relations campaigns…our civil justice system is not impartial. Jurors have been led to believe that a large verdict will affect their pocketbooks. Voters believe that we have a court system out of control that needs reforming. Although there are consumer advocacy groups who have attempted to set the story straight, there has yet to be enough money to launch the kind of public relations campaign for consumers that can even begin to combat and challenge the public relations campaigns of pro-business and tort reform groups.”
Documentaries and independent films, like “Hot Coffee” are helping to set the record straight.
“Hot Coffee” uses Liebeck’s story and three others to educate viewers about the realities of tort reform. The film also addresses the issues of caps on medical damages and mandatory arbitration in civil lawsuits.
It is truly eye opening. We want people in our community to have the opportunity to have all the facts so they can make up their own minds about these important issues.
We invite you to be our guest at the movies on Oct. 9.
If you’re not able to make it to the public screening, consider hosting a “Hot Coffee” viewing party at home. You can find more information at www.hotcoffeethemovie.com, under the Take Action tab.
Want to go?
What: Free public screening of the documentary, “Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served?”
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 9
Where: Carolina Theatre, 310 S. Greene St., Greensboro
Admission: Free; the first 500 people also receive a free tote bag and other goodies
What Really Happened to Stella Liebeck
The documentary goes into specific detail, but here are the facts, in brief, of Stella Lieback’s injuries and the court case.
• In February 1992, the 79-year-old woman was sitting in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car after purchasing a cup of McDonald’s coffee. After the car stopped, she tried to hold the cup securely between her knees while removing the lid. However, the cup tipped over, pouring scalding hot coffee onto her lap.
• Liebeck received third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body, requiring an eight-day hospitalization, whirlpool treatment for debridement of her wounds, skin grafting, scarring and disability for more than two years.
• Despite these extensive injuries, Liebeck offered to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000. However, McDonald’s refused to settle for this small amount and, in fact, never offered more than $800.
• The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages — reduced to $160,000 because the jury found her 20 percent at fault — and $2.7 million in punitive damages for McDonald’s callous conduct. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, but did state that McDonald’s had engaged in “willful, wanton, and reckless” behavior.
• Liebeck and McDonald’s eventually settled for a confidential amount.
• By corporate specifications, McDonald’s sells its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit. Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in two to seven seconds.
• McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and lawsuits. In fact, from 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people.
• McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk of burns.
• Liebeck’s treating physician testified her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen.
Source: “Hot Coffee,” the Center for Justice & Democracy and Liebeck’s attorney.