Law in Popular Culture

Documentary on 'Hot Coffee' Case Airs on HBO; Public Approves, Tort Defense Blog Sees Flaws

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Over the years, the words “hot coffee” have become virtually synonomous with the phrase “frivolous litigation.”

It all dates back to the notorious case of Stella Liebeck, the elderly woman who was awarded nearly $3 million in a lawsuit against McDonald’s in 1994 over a cup of spilled coffee that left her with second- and third-degree burns.

The case quickly became fodder for late-night comedians and a symbol of everything that is wrong with the civil litigation system.

But the real story is a lot more complicated—and a lot more troubling—than the one of popular lore. And a new HBO documentary, “Hot Coffee,” by lawyer-director Susan Saladoff, is giving many people a new appreciation for the case.

“Everybody knows—or thinks they know—the McDonald’s case,” Saladoff told the New York Times. “But they really don’t know it at all.”

“I made this movie because I had something to say that needed to be said, and nobody else was saying it, at least to regular folks, to the public,” she added.

The movie, first shown at the Sundance film festival, has drawn some positive reviews from media critics. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post said after Sundance that the film provided the “kind of narrative that sends audiences out of the theater thinking in a brand-new way about something they thought they understood.”

However, the lawyers from the Greenville, S.C., tort defense firm Gallivan, White & Boyd also wrote a lengthy review at the firm’s blog, Abnormal Use. Regarding the Liebeck case—which Abnormal Use says only gets about 10 minutes of the 88-minute film—“Saladoff neglects to address the point often made here at Abnormal Use: coffee is meant to be served hot and does not become “unreasonably dangerous” until negligently spilled by the consumer.”

Related coverage:

Generation J.D.: “Hot Coffee Puts America in Hot Water”

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