Earlier this year we reported on the Sundance Film Festival’s world premiere of the movie Hot Coffee, which is a documentary about the McDonald’s hot coffee spill case. As of last night, the movie is now airing on HBO.
The movie delves beyond the quippy one-liners most folks are used to hearing about the case, and instead examines the actual proof presented during the trial. The victim was an elderly woman who suffered burns on her lap so severe she almost died. She had to have skin grafts. During the documentary, the filmaker shows photos and other evidence from the trial to random strangers, who are appalled at the severity of the woman’s injuries.
The case became the butt of jokes not because it was frivolous — the woman’s injuries were far from laughable. No, the case became infamous due to a media propaganda campaign by corporate America to limit our citizen’s access to the judicial system. Powerful lobbyists demonized the lawsuit as the posterchild for runaway juries and frivolous lawsuits in order to limit corporations’ exposure for harms they cause to innocent Americans.
The fact is, our civil justice system only allows one way to fix what can be fixed, to help what can’t be fixed, and to make up for what went wrong: an award of money. And a jury of our peers decides how much money is appropriate in each case. Every jury receives detailed instructions telling it what must be proven for the jury to award money to the injured party.
In the McDonald’s hot coffee case, that amount of money helped pay for the woman’s medical bills, made up for all the time she spent in the hospital and in recovery, and helped provide things she needed to perform her activities of daily living, which she couldn’t do as well after her hospitalization.
Watch the movie for yourself on HBO. After seeing the evidence firsthand, let us know if you still think the McDonald’s hot coffee case was the posterchild for frivolous lawsuits. You might just change your mind.