The documentary “Hot Coffee” debuts next Monday, June 27 at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time on HBO. The documentary is a challenge to and an analysis on the American public’s long-held belief that the plaintiff in the McDonald’s Coffee Case profited from spilling hot coffee on her lap and therefore abused the legal system. While the coffee case was a product liability case, the documentary also looks at three other personal injury cases to challenge the notion of frivolous lawsuits and demonstrates how tort reform threatens civil rights.
When many people think about the McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case, they think about a woman who made a lot of money for simply spilling coffee on herself. Some people even say they wished it would have them that spilled the coffee; with the implication that they too would have “made out like a bandit.” The problem is the woman in the McDonald’s Coffee case did not make out like a bandit.
The facts of the case are that a 79-year-old woman ordered a 49 cent coffee from the drive-through window of McDonald’s. The elderly woman was seated in the passenger seat of her nephew’s car and placed the coffee cup between her legs to add sugar and cream. During the process of removing the lid of the container, the woman spilled the entire cup of coffee in her lap. The woman suffered third-degree burns on her thighs, buttocks and groin. She spent the next eight days in the hospital while skin grafts were performed to heal her damaged skin. The woman endured two years of medical treatment afterward.
It did not take long for the elderly woman in the McDonald’s Case to be portrayed as the prime example of what was wrong with the tort system in the United States: profiteering from frivolous lawsuits. Everyday Americans give up their rights by agreeing to contracts that do not allow a legal dispute to go to court or by voting for limitations on damages. Watch the documentary to learn about the civil justice system in America and to possibly challenge your own beliefs.