Synopsis by Mark Deming
Most people have heard the story of the woman who ordered a cup of coffee from McDonalds, spilled it on her lap, and sued the fast food chain for millions of dollars. The case is often used as an example of the abuse of the tort system in America, but not everyone knows the truth about the case. Stella Liebeck received third-degree burns that required skin grafts after she spilled the coffee on herself while seated in her parked car, and after racking up over $10,000 in hospital bills, McDonalds offered her a settlement of only $800. Liebeck took the matter to court, and it was the jury that found in her favor and bumped the settlement up to $2.9 million, though she asked for significantly less; a judge later reduced the penalty to $480,000. While the facts of the case seem reasonable, public relations firms working for McDonald's spun the coverage in the company's favor, and their version of the incident is the one best known to the public. Filmmaker Susan Saladoff examines how major corporations are using disinformation and lobbying power to make it harder for ordinary citizens to use the courts to settle grievances against businesses in the documentary Hot Coffee, which uses this and three other cases as examples of how corporate power is corrupting America's legal system. Hot Coffee was an official selection at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
fast-food, lawsuit, lobbyist, public-relations