“Hot Coffee” documentary (HBO) reviewed

by Walter Olson on June 27, 2011

Great review by Miami Herald TV critic Glenn Garvin casting a skeptical eye on the trial-lawyer film project (“done in by its essential dishonesty… like any good lawyer — and unlike any good documentarian — [director Susan Saladoff is] intent on concealing the weakness in her case).” Read it here. Meanwhile, from the “How does this sort of thing get past the editors of the Washington Post?” files, there’s this from Hank Stuever:

For to really embrace tort reform, you have to be willing to treat all potential plaintiffs as no-good grifters. … To support tort reform, you have to believe all lawsuits against businesses are a threat to the free market.

Stuever does not, for some reason, name any proponent of reform who has actually asserted either of the propositions. Do you think that might be because he’s trafficking in absurd caricatures? (earlier on “Hot Coffee” here, here, here, etc.)

P.S. More: Cory Andrews, WLF. And if lawyers are really eager to have the facts of the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case come out, it’s curious they don’t take steps to release the trial transcript, in the absence of which critics of the case are obliged to speculate on key points. And as I just wrote in a comment at Abnormal Use:

I believe organized tort reform groups were caught flat-footed by the McDonald’s case and didn’t get around to doing much with it until it had already become the talk of the nation through talk shows, late night TV and so forth. As often happens, plaintiff’s-side advocacy groups were more aggressive in seeking coverage for their side in the media. Thus Public Citizen and allies gave a press conference on Capitol Hill and were rewarded with a big Newsweek story summarizing their talking points (as well as, earlier, coverage in the news-side WSJ). I’m pretty sure no groups critical of the Liebeck award ever did a comparable press push; and the McDonald’s company itself, so far as I know, never chose to cooperate with commentators who might be sympathetic to its legal case.

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1 Mike 06.27.11 at 1:09 pm

You’re quoting a film critic on a nuanced policitcal point like tort reform. Not worth the effort. You might as well be quoting a sportswriter on the 13th amendment.

2 Carter 06.27.11 at 4:28 pm

From the American Association for Justice’s convention brochure, schedule for Monday, July 11.

Screening “Hot Coffee”
5:30 pm–7:00 pm
Metropolitan Ballroom E, 2nd Floor
Sheraton New York
Most people think they know the “McDonald’s coffee case,” but
what they don’t know is that corporations have spent millions
distorting the case to promote tort reform. Stella Liebeck’s
personal legal battle over a spilled cup of coffee serves as a
springboard into understanding our civil justice system. “HOT
COFFEE ” reveals how big business, aided by the media, brewed a
dangerous concoction of manipulation and lies to protect corporate
interests. By following four people whose lives were devastated
by the attacks on our courts, the film challenges the assumptions
Americans hold about “jackpot justice.” We track the money
behind the PR campaigns to show our audience that many of its
long-held beliefs about our civil justice system have been paid for
by corporate America.

3 Jason Barney 06.27.11 at 5:02 pm

A rebuttal documentary should be created (à la FahrenHYPE 9/11) and should be entitled, “Hot Air”.

4 Richard Nieporent 06.27.11 at 5:05 pm

I’m only surprised that Susan Saladoff didn’t name the film Triumph of the Trial Lawyers.

5 Bumper 06.27.11 at 5:15 pm

“We track the money behind the PR campaigns to show our audience that many of its long-held beliefs about our civil justice system have been paid for by corporate America.”

I wonder how many lawyers work under the cover of a corporation, be it an LLC or full blown incorporation. Which would beg the question, did the AAJ they track themselves as well or just their version of the bad guys?

6 Richard A Harrison 06.28.11 at 7:28 am

Money Quote from the review: “Makes you wonder if there’s a remedy for documentarian malpractice.”

7 Hugo S. Cunningham 06.28.11 at 11:20 am

A favorite talking point of tort-reform opponents is that McDonald’s rejected a settlement demand of $20,000 for the coffee burn. Did they flat-out reject any offer (which sounds harsh, even considering the plaintiff’s contributory negligence), or was it simply the difference between, say, a $10,000 offer and a $20,000 demand, the kind of bargaining and bluffing that takes place all the time? If the first, the jury’s desire to punish McDonald’s is understandable, even if $3,000,000 is over the top; if the second, McDonald’s looks far less cruel.

8 James M. Roth 06.28.11 at 11:32 am

I thought this was a well done and thought provoking piece of film making. I was very impressed with the movie and would highly recomend it to anyone who “thinks” they know how the civil justice system in the U.S. works. 5 stars!!

9 Hugo S. Cunningham 06.28.11 at 4:04 pm

This review in “Miami Herald” seems to have hit a nerve; tort reform opponents are bombarding the comment page.

One opponent disputes this claim
[begin quote]
“Hot Coffee does not include a single meaningful interview with anybody who believes in tort reform, …”

>So sorry you did not find Victor Schwartz’s remarks meaningful. Mr. Schwartz is general counsel for the American Tort Reform Association.
[end quote]

To what extent was Victor Schwartz interviewed and allowed to present his case?

10 Richard Nieporent 06.28.11 at 6:35 pm

Though provoking, very impressed, highly recommended, 5 stars!

Mr. James Roth post reads just like blog SPAM. Of course trial lawyers would never stoop to anything shady like that.

11 Ron Miller 06.29.11 at 8:06 am

I think the is the part where I exclaim THIS HAPPENED 17 YEARS AGO! CAN WE PLEASE MOVE ON?

Okay. As you were.

12 Ron Miller 06.29.11 at 8:10 am

“As often happens, plaintiff’s-side advocacy groups were more aggressive in seeking coverage for their side in the media. ”

Each side is always accusing the other being more media savvy.

13 Claude 06.29.11 at 8:29 am

@Richard Nieporent: I agree with James M Roth, and I am not a lawyer.

14 Claude 06.29.11 at 8:33 am

@ Ron Miller: This is happening today.
And the almost universal acceptance of the tort reformer’s side of the story explains why “plaintiff’s-side advocacy groups [are] more aggressive in seeking coverage for their side in the media.”

15 Ron Miller 06.29.11 at 2:37 pm

Claude, then point to THOSE cases, not this 17 year old theory.

I love this: almost “almost universal acceptance” stuff. You have multiple tautologies going in the same sentence. That’s a feat.

I can prove your wrong because (1) I’m certain you are wrong, (2) my friend said you were wrong and (3) I read somewhere that you are totally wrong. Given all of this, how can we even argue about this?

16 Ron Miller 06.29.11 at 2:40 pm

“McDonald’s company itself, so far as I know, never chose to cooperate with commentators who might be sympathetic to its legal case.”

Also, Walter, I’m not sure you can drive by this argument without stopping. Should we peel this onion even a bit?

17 Dustin Thomas 06.29.11 at 8:04 pm

Instead of attacking the film generally, why not point to specific facts in the film that are not true. I have yet to find an attack that disputes the truth of the facts in the film. The Miami “reporter” (really Advocate) generally attacks those who made the film but not the truth of any fact in the film. Now attack me if you will, but please also try to honestly review the claims the film made and point to specific claims that are false. Should be easy if your beliefs have any merit.

18 William nuesslein 06.30.11 at 8:38 am

I smell truthiness. Ms. Steibeck is a compelling plaintiff, but her coffee spill was not the responsibility of McDonalds. That people want to use litigation to punish McDonalds for its lack of empathy shows an ignorance of law.

If Ms Steibeck was in a dead-still parked car, then spilling a whole cup of coffee seems quite unlikely. If she was fiddling with her coffee while the car was being parked, then there would be accelerations and decellerations consistent with tipping a cup of coffee.

One aspect of the case that was weighty to me is the cost of her care at the hospital. I believe the shock of her bill moved Ms. Steibeck to seeking help from McDonalds.

19 Brandon Bliss 06.30.11 at 11:35 am

“Each side is always accusing the other being more media savvy.”

True. But only one side owns the media.

Walter, critics of the McDonald’s case wouldn’t have to speculate on critical points if they had ever been interested in obtaining the trial transcript themselves. It’s never been confidential. But I guess their failure to do so has given them a good excuse for continuing their speculation.

20 Patrick Duncan 07.01.11 at 7:22 am

Those who are defending McDonalds and belittling Ms.Steibeck are saying that although 12 jurors that were there and heard all of the testimony were incompetent imbeciles. You are not mentioning lots of salient points of the trial to pettifog the truth of the matter and take it out of context.

The jurors that heard the case had a transcript. Ms Steibeck was only asking for payment of money for what her Medicare could not pay for. An Amount of $20,000. McDonald’s didn’t want to pay what it it was responsible for, which was to simply pay for the injury caused by the plastic cup that broke apart in her lap due to the temperature of the coffee in the cup eroded the integrity of the plastic material. The structural integrity of the cups themselves could not sustain those those high temperatures adequately. McDonalds knew this, or should have after the 700+ complaints about it already. Because of their neglect in pursuing a solution the jury of people unrelated and unknown to the victim decided that McDonald’s egregious behavior and negligence should be punished enough to get their attention. It wasn’t Ms Steibeck’s goal to achieve a penalty anywhere near what the jury decided. The jury awarded an amount THEY saw for such corporate irresponsibility. It was one 2 days worth of coffee sales for McDonalds at that time. Stop blaming the victim. Blame the corporate fool who decided not to settle for the medical cost.

21 William nuesslein 07.02.11 at 8:22 am

Patrick Duncan – in a comment above – “Those who are defending McDonalds and belittling Ms.Steibeck are saying that although 12 jurors that were there and heard all of the testimony were incompetent imbeciles.”

I suspect Mr. Duncan has not review the fantastic day-care center cases or the thousands of repressed memories cases. Literally million of cups of coffee are sold every year. Mr. Duncan is telling us that mcDonalds would serve the coffee in cups with low melting points. Imbecile applies to that level of reasoning.

22 Andrew 07.06.11 at 9:41 am

You guys do realize that the burns she had were so bad, that she almost died, right? If they has not gotten her to the emergency room quickly, she would have been dead. She had third degree burns all over her groin thighs and buttocks. I have spilled coffee on myself my flesh wasn’t seared off, didn’t even get first degree burns. What happened to her was not the same. The pictures of her wounds are disgusting, dead, black tissue and large portions had to be ciut out because her cloths had been melted into her flesh. If she had been a man, the coffee would have melted off his manhood.

If the case McDonald’s, argued that everyone knows coffee is hot, but this fell apart when they admitted that almost no one knew it was so hot it could use third degree burns in 2 to 7 seconds. McDonald’s then also admitted that their coffee was not safe for human consumption at sale. They admitted that their product was not safe, which they already knew from 700 other incidents with many having third degree burns.

After the case, McDonald’s reduced the coffee’s temperature by about 40 degrees. They would not change it, from just being told there was a problem. It was not until after being sued that they made their product safe, so others won’t be horribly deformed later on.

23 ryan 07.10.11 at 4:39 pm

Andrew, there are holes in your logic. McDonald’s changed the temperature because THEY WERE SUCCESSFULLY sued. To protect themselves from further money-grabbers they lowered the temperature as a preventative measure. There are alternative explanations for why they lowered the temperature other than a tacit admittance of overly hot coffee. Furthermore, 700 complaints in millions of cups served is not a whole hell of a lot.

I think you need more than 700 complaints out of millions to prove that excessive heat is an issue at a corporate level at McDonald’s. If one considers that McDonald’s has ten thousand restaurants with many being franchisees they would then have to consider if these excessive temperatures were not simply the errors of managers. If the excessive temperatures were truly the fault of corporate malfeasance would we not see tens of thousands of complaints????

McDonald’s employees teenagers, retirees, and people on the fringe of society.They generally do not attract top notch workers. Therefore, it is not a stretch to say that employee incompetence is responsible for the excessive heat.

Corporations are easy targets. They are faceless, amoral, entities that have a legacy of being indifferent and even hostile to rights of workers and customers. But then we must remember that individuals and lawyers have equally lengthy track records of being dishonest gold diggers who will use the prejudices of the people against corporations to make money.It is all just a game. The use of the word “justice” is a cynical ploy by trial lawyers to win anti-corporation fanatics over to their side. (These same people think that big government–an even more powerful faceless entity with a track record of human rights abuse much longer than that of corporations–is a good thing.)

We are all just pawns on a chess board, being moved to and fro by two groups battling for control of power in this country.

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