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“Hot Coffee” documentary, premiering Monday on HBO, tells true story behind the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit

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You may not know the name Stella Liebeck, but I’d bet $2.9 million you know her story.

Liebeck is New Mexico woman who sued McDonald’s after she was burned by a cup of coffee. Yep, she’s the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit lady.

You’ve probably cracked jokes about what happened to Liebeck — David Letterman did. And if you’re like most Americans, you believe hers was a frivolous lawsuit, an example of what one commentator termed “jackpot justice.”

Well, you don’t know the real story. There was nothing frivolous about Liebeck’s lawsuit, and the injuries and pain she suffered as a result of McDonald’s negligence were real and serious. Life-threatening, in fact. Doctors didn’t expect her to live; that’s how severe her burns were.

The documentary “Hot Coffee,” which premieres Monday on HBO explains how cases like Lieback’s have been distorted in the media to create the perception that so-called frivolous lawsuits are rampant. The real injustice is to people like Lieback, and the others featured in the HBO documentary by Susan Saladoff.

Despite the fact that federal legislation has never been successful, big business interests have won in the hearts and minds of average people. They launched a public relations campaign starting in the mid-80’s and continuing over the last two decades to convince the public that we have out of control juries, too many frivolous lawsuits and a civil justice system that needs reforming. 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, paid for by tobacco, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, to name a few, 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. Over the last few years, however, documentary films and independent film festivals have become a vehicle for alternative ideas to get a public forum.


The documentary goes into specific detail, but here are the facts, in brief, of Lieback’s case, courtesy of her attorney and the Center for Justice & Democracy:

  • 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
  • Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years.
  • McDonald’s admitted that it has 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 suits. in fact, from 1982 to 1992, McDonald’s coffee burned more than 700 people.
  • McDonald’s admitted that it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk of burns.
  • Liebeck’s treating physician testified that her injury was one of the worst scald burns he had ever seen

I encourage you to watch this documentary. You may learn something, and you’re likely to change your mind about “frivolous” lawsuits.

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