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Some Don't Like It Hot

Hot Coffee film certain to brew up dialogue

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Have you heard the joke about the woman who sued McDonald's? You know, that woman who spilled coffee in the McDonald's drive-thru and then sued the fast-food giant for millions? Certainly you heard the jokes from Jay Leno or David Letterman. You must have seen the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer spills hot coffee on himself and launches a suit against the fictional Java World.

In fact, everyone BW spoke to regarding this story, from attorneys to baristas, thought they knew the infamous hot coffee story, but their knowledge was based primarily on the jokes that have been percolating for nearly two decades since the event.

Not until an examination of the incident, damages and settlement has anyone fully grasped how the nation's civil justice system was scalded by a single cup of coffee bought by an elderly New Mexico woman.

"I wanted to get the truth out," said Susan Saladoff, a 26-year veteran attorney-turned-filmmaker.

Saladoff, like most Americans, was vaguely familiar with the case of Stella Liebeck, but when she sought out the truth, even Liebeck and her relatives were reluctant to talk to her. They had been burned before and not just by coffee.

"Until my film came out, they were a laughingstock," said Saladoff. "They were embarrassed by all of the myths, and they had to constantly be correcting people."

Without any appointments, Saladoff, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, flew to Albuquerque, N.M., to do her research.

"The Liebeck family didn't want to talk to me when I first contacted them," she said. "They were very skeptical of my motivation. It took a long time for them to trust me."

Saladoff knew how she wanted to tell the truth--on film, in spite of the fact that she had never directed or produced anything similar in her life. Yet when she was done, the film premiered to audience and critical acclaim at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was purchased by HBO for worldwide distribution.

The Incident

On Feb. 27, 1992, Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her grandson's car when they purchased a 49-cent cup of coffee from an Albuquerque McDonald's through the drive-thru window. The grandson parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. In pulling the lid up from the coffee cup, which was between her knees, Liebeck spilled the contents in her lap. The resulting injuries were horrible.

Early in Saladoff's film, Hot Coffee, citizens across America are asked what they know about so-called "frivolous lawsuits." Each person brought up the infamous McDonald's incident, all without prompting.

"They would tell me what they knew about the case, most of it not true," said Saladoff. "And then I showed them the photographs."

The photographs are stomach-churning. Liebeck had been wearing cotton sweatpants, which absorbed the coffee, holding it tight to her skin, scalding her buttocks, groin and thighs. She suffered burns on 22 percent of her skin. She remained in the hospital for eight days. Two years of medical treatment, including skin grafts, were required.

"I think when people come into the theater, they probably think the McDonald's case was a pretty ridiculous, frivolous lawsuit," said Saladoff. "And then they see the photographs. It's almost as if a switch is flipped in people's brains. And when it switches, it becomes, 'Oh my, how did I not know this? How did I get this so wrong?'"

But as startling as the images of the burns are, the real stunner is in Liebeck's settlement, how she became a national punch line and the implications to any American who has been wronged.

The Trial

According to Saladoff, McDonald's initially offered Liebeck $800 to make the story go away. But her medical expenses alone had topped $10,000. That's when her attorney filed suit against McDonald's for gross negligence.

During the August 1994 trial, Liebeck's attorneys argued that McDonald's franchisees were ordered to serve coffee at 180 to 190 degrees, causing third-degree burns in two to seven seconds. Her lawyers argued that if the temperature was dropped 20 to 30 degrees, someone might have up to 15 seconds to remove the coffee from exposed skin.

Also during the trial, court documents revealed that between 1982 and 1992, McDonald's had received as many as 700 reports of coffee-related burns.

Ultimately, a 12-person jury awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages. But the jury also penalized McDonald's in punitive damages to the tune of $2.7 million. The figure was the equivalent of two days worth of coffee revenues for the fast-food giant.

But without consulting the jury, Judge Robert Scott reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, exactly three times the compensatory damage.

"I have a theory on why he settled on that amount," said Saladoff. "Let's think about what was going on at the time. This was 1994. President [Bill] Clinton was in office, but the midterm elections slipped heavily in favor of the Republicans."

Newt Gingrich stood in the eye of the GOP storm. The newly elected U.S. House speaker had co-authored the Contract With America, the Republican party's new political Bible.

"And inside that Contract With America was tort reform," remembered Saladoff. "And Gingrich said specifically that punitive damages should be capped to an amount three times the compensatory damages."

Idaho Implications

A tort is a wrong. In jurisprudence, it's a civil wrong.

"When someone wrongs us, we bring a tort claim against them. We say, 'You injured me,'" said Barbara Jorden, legislative director for the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association.

But Idaho has seen a steady drop in the amount of non-economic damages that someone can claim.

"Most people know what economic damages are, but non-economic are equally important," said Erika Birch, attorney with the Boise office of Strindberg and Scholnick. "These are the things that can't be attached to a receipt. How much of your time has been lost? Or your spouse?"

In 1987, non-economic damages in Idaho were limited to $400,000, with a built-in economic indicator. And thanks to some intense lobbying from the Idaho Liability Reform Coalition, damages took another drop in 2003.

"Idaho now has one of the worst limitations of damages in the nation," said Jorden. "We fought like crazy in 2003, but we lost in the State Senate by one vote. They dropped compensatory non-economic damages to $250,000. It was a very rough time. We worked really hard and lost that one."

Birch, who knew she wanted to be an attorney since the fifth grade, spends her days litigating employment actions--wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, non-compete clauses. Her clients range from farmworkers to some of the Gem State's top executives.

"I once had a sexual harassment case that went to trial in federal court," said Birch. "A woman had claimed that she had been harassed and physically assaulted by her supervisor and forced out of her job because she had complained about it. A jury heard all of her testimony. A jury awarded her $1.75 million in damages. A jury heard all of the testimony and they got to decide what her emotional distress was worth."

Or so they thought.

"The jury's decision went all the way down to ..." said Birch, drawing a downward line in the air with her finger, with an accompanying sound of "wooooosh." "All the way down to $300,000 by the judge. You see, the jury is never told about caps. They're never told, 'Oh, by the way, no matter what you decide, your award will be whatever the cap is.' It wasn't even discretionary."

Birch said there is little to no recourse in such actions.

"A lot of people have tried to show that this is unconstitutional, but so far, they've been unsuccessful," said Birch. "That woman won and lost. That case was in 2001 at the beginning of my career and that cap is still in place today."

Birch and Jorden can't wait for more people to see Saladoff's movie. That's why the ITLA is sponsoring a free screening of Hot Coffee at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23, at the Egyptian Theatre.

"It's amazing how many people talk about the McDonald's hot-coffee case and they don't even know yet about the movie," said Jorden. "I was just over at Dawson Taylor and a couple of people behind the counter saw my ITLA name tag. When I told them I worked with lawyers, they said, 'Be careful, this is hot,' and even said they were just talking about the McDonald's case. When I told them what the real truth was and about the movie, they were pretty excited."

That's the main reason Birch said she contacted Saladoff online asking her to bring her film to Boise.

"Then I walked over to the Egyptian Theatre and the woman working in the box office said, 'Oh my gosh, we were just talking about the McDonald's case.'"

Birch and Jorden are convinced that the more people who see the film, the more conversation will be sparked.

"If we get one person who sees the different side of the McDonald's case we'll be thrilled," said Birch.

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