"Hot Coffee": A Movie you must see

Posted on Nov 14, 2011
On November 1, 2011, HBO Films released a documentary, "Hot Coffee", about America's civil justice system.  "Hot Coffee" is named after the well-known case arising from McDonald's coffee that caused severe, third degree burns and multiple skin grafting operations on Stella Liebeck, a 79 year old Albuquerque, New Mexico resident who spilt the coffee on her lap.

"Hot Coffee" explores the facts of the McDonald's coffee case and contrasts the public perception of that case with the facts.  While members of the public universally condemn the McDonald's coffee case as an example of "jackpot justice" at its worst, the facts of the case tell a different story. 

The facts of Stella Liebeck's case were that she sustained severe, third-degree burns to her pelvic area necessitating three skin-grafting operations.   Photographs showing the burns are grotesque.   The lawyers for Ms. Liebeck discovered that McDonald's had a corporate policy of overheating their coffee by 40-50 degrees, which was designed to reduce the number of customers asking for free refills. McDonald's had 700 documented complaints of scalding burns caused by their hot coffee.  McDonald's did nothing in response to the 700 complaints about their "hot" coffee.

Notably, the director of McDonald's risk assurance department testified matter-of-factly at a deposition that McDonald's coffee was not fit for consumption at 180-190 degrees (its desired temperature under McDonald's corporate policy) and if a consumer drank the coffee at that temperature, it would burn them.

A jury found Stella Liebeck partially at fault for spilling the coffee on herself and found McDonald's at fault for its corporate policy of overheating coffee to extreme temperatures and ignoring repeated burn injuries caused by their coffee.  Compensatory damages for Ms. Liebeck's injuries of $160,000 were modest given her severe injuries, and the punitive damages of $2.7 million were later reduced by the Court to $480,000.

When random members of the public were shown photographs of Ms. Liebeck's severe pelvic burns, they were shocked and they could not believe that a single cup of coffee could have caused such injuries (you have to see the photographs to believe this).  When informed that McDonald's had a corporate policy of overheating their coffee and McDonald's had received 700 complaints of burns caused by their coffee, their indignation rose.

After getting the actual facts of the McDonald's case, the persons interviewed for "Hot Coffee" stopped laughing at the McDonald's case and many expressed the view that the jury did not go far enough with their verdict.  After the jury's verdict in Albuquerque, New Mexico, McDonald's changed its corporate policy by reducing the temperature of its coffee.  A single lawsuit prevented innumerable burn injuries by forcing McDonald's to change its corporate policy.

"Hot Coffee" does an excellent job of illustrating the difference between perception and reality.  The perception of the public is that Stella Liebeck scammed McDonald's for millions for a minor injury that was completely her fault.  The reality of the McDonald's case is that Stella Liebeck sustained severe injuries by scalding hot coffee that was deliberately overheated by McDonald's in order to maximize their profits from coffee sales.

For those interested in learning the truth about America's civil justice system, the movie, "Hot Coffee", is a fantastic primer.

If you have any questions about "Hot Coffee", I welcome your phone call on my toll-free cell at 866-889-6882.  You can request a FREE copy of my book, The Seven Deadly Mistakes of Malpractice Victims, by sending me an e-mail at [email protected] .