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Spinning Spilled ‘Hot Coffee’ To Take Away The Right To Sue?


Here & Now Guest:

  • Susan Saladoff, director-producer of “Hot Coffee

When 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap in February of 1992, her injuries and resulting lawsuit against McDonald’s ignited a firestorm of criticism and satire when the jury awarded her $2.7 million.

Liebeck’s case was portrayed as a case of a jackpot jury, or the justice system run amok. However, as first-time filmmaker and attorney Susan Saladoff portrays in a new documentary film “Hot Coffee,” airing on HBO, not only were Liebeck’s injuries severe, but her case was used by business interests to rally support for “tort reform,” which masked a campaign to limit the average person’s right to sue, both at the federal and state levels.

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  • John Fusco

    I am a small business owner who was recently compelled to pay $100,000 in attorney fees to defend our company, over two years of discovery, in a frivolous lawsuit brought by an employee I laid off for economic reasons but, who claimed she was discriminated against. The contingency lawyer who represented her ultimately conceded that there was no merit to the complaint yet I was still compelled to settle to avoid a long and costly jury trial.  Where’s the justice in that?

    • PS Frog

      Our company is going through a similar frivolous lawsuit now.  So far 10-20K in legal fees that should be going to hire more employees.

      • Jnace9

        Sounds like you should advocate for caps on defense lawyers fees.

      • Diogenes

        Gosh froggie, yet again you distort information. In your first post, you misleadingly misrepresent Saladoff, who is a public interest lawyer; work which has median salaries of about 25% of law firm starting salaries – no contingencies. Nonetheless, you whine about Saladoff’s possible bias while further revealing your own above. Then for good measure, you throw in a fallacious connection between legal costs and less employment at your company. A bit sanctimonious, don’t you think? But aren’t attorneys being employed to resolve your difficulties? An assertion, while technically correct, is equally specious. More to the point, rather than impugn the motives of others, your employer might be better served and some of those legal fees covered if you hopped off your lily pad and got to work instead of listening to the radio on company time and using your employer’s computer to surf the net and spout nonsense.

        • PS Frog

          salaries”? Weren’t you the one that told me salary statistics can be
          manipulated any way you want? You even recommended some books, as I recall.

          But apparently Ms
          Saladoff’s “median salary” is not small since she needed a special
          exemption for the size of her home:


          Sounds like a huge home…which is fine with me. I glad she
          is successful. I just think her motives and how she gets her money should have
          been examined better in the interview. 
          We examine other peoples motives that make advocating documentaries, why
          not her?


          As far as my work habits?  LOL  Where is that coming from?  You
          are taking my little comments on the internet too seriously.

    • Kurt

      I sincerely doubt that the claim was “frivolous,” as you choose to classify it.  If the claim had no merit, which is what a frivolous suit is, your lawyer should have been able to obtain a summary judgment in your favor.  I am certain you will believe it was “frivolous” no matter what anyone says, but in reality, no lawyer worth his or her salt is going to take on a frivolous case on a contingency fee basis.  We (yes, I am a lawyer) have too much at stake.  Furthermore, if opposing counsel admitted that the claim was meritless then I assume you received sanctions from him/her pursuant to Rule 11, correct?

      • John Fusco

        As a lawyer, I’m sure that you would acknowledge that judges are reluctant to grant a summary judgement motion when there are “triable issues of fact”. Plaintiff’s attorney wasn’t so simple that she admited in Court that the claim was meritless but rather told our attorney that she had invested a few thousand dollars in the lawsuit for such things as a videographer for depositions and needed to recoup her expenses. I disagree that lawyers wouldn’t take on a frivolous lawsuit on a contingency basis. Employers are easy targets for certain lawyers and claims for discrimination have dramatically increased since the recession.

        • Jnace9

          If there are triable issues of fact, that means, by definition, that the other side has a case that can be proven.  That means that the case is, by definition, not frivolous.  So, if the judge found that there are triable issues of fact, then the case was not frivolous.  You may believe that you were right and she was wrong, but that is not what makes a lawsuit frivolous. 

          I also seriously doubt that the plaintiff’s lawyer told you he knew the case was frivolous.

          • John Fusco

            Of course the plaintiff’s lawyer didn’t tell me she knew the case was frivolous. Certain lawyers who handle employee complaints of discrimination seem to only realize that their clients are misrepresenting things, after they’ve done considerable discovery. By that time, they’ve invested time and money in the case and seek a settlement on the courthouse steps to meet their expenses and toss their clients a bone. In the meantime, the defendant is forced to assume the costs of their defense. Isn’t it more just and reasonable to arbitrate?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Flentje/618121433 David Flentje

      Compelled to settle.  That means your insurance company?  Gimme a break.  Reform built around cutting off the rights of citizens is nonsense.  Lawyers win, insurance companies win you lose.  Reform that cuts off awards and access to the courts won’t change that, look at them.  No reform will do more than increase insurance profits and change which lawyers make the most.  If they eliminate liability there would be no need for insurance – insurance companies and civil defense lawyers won’t support that anymore than the mythical greedy “trial lawyers”.  All the skirmishes over tort are merely efforts to tilt the field in favor of one side or the other – not to eliminate the pot of money completely.

      And lets be honest – you don’t want them to either.  If someone crashes into your house – you want them to be liable for that.  If a doctor gets confused and cuts off your leg instead of doing your tonsilectomy – you want him to be liable for that.

      • John Fusco

        The first thing that your insuror gives you when you notify them of a claim is a “reservation of rights” letter, which essentially tells you why they won’t cover you. In the end, our insuror told me that employment practices liability is something that they wouldn’t cover.

  • PS Frog

    The “filmmaker” is not just a lawyer….she “spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence.”  For Pete’s sake, suing corporations has been her bread and butter!  I think that should have been made clear in the interview.

  • laager

    The American’s recourse to Civil Suits is as old as our colonial history, 400 years past. It was one of the attractions the New World offered–to be free from the aristocratic control of Courts, moving to a greater equity of Law.

    This point is made in our earliest State and Colonial histories, again and again. Many read as trivial as the abuse of the Court system in our own era.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Some years ago, I accompanied my son to “Arbitration” about problems with his car.  The “arbitrator”, after seeing my son’s documentation, and hearing the dealer admit there was a serious problem, that was dangerous, “arbitrarily” told my son he had to keep the car.  We are spreading the word about arbitration, and the arbitrary decisions.  AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS!!

  • rici

    I feel like such a fool, for buying into MacDonalds/Roves
    media blitz, but now I am in Stellas shoes. Worse yet, I see the illusion of
    justice we all have been sold and how money and the unscrupulous destroy what
    we are trying to build as our national identity. I am right now fighting to get
    legal aid, what a joke that is, Rove probably has his hand in that too. The
    ultimate truth is you only are due human rights and justice if you have wealth
    and that is the only truth that I have encountered. What is horrible, is that
    we are so easily lead by corruption. I read that arbitrators agreement on my
    cell; it is economic slavery, we have no choice if we want a job, a phone and
    it permeates all contracts. Where was the legislator that loved his countries
    rights when they let that take over? At a resort with the highest bidder?

    • laager

      Your observation of economic slavery is spot-on. Economic Feudalism is what i call it.

      From Bacon’s Rebellion to the Whisky Rebellion and the violence of the Iowan farmers in the Great Depression, American’s have massed in protest against their government. The story is little changed–however different the details and motivations may have been.

      “And we cannot be but very uneasy, when we find by these new methods of government, our liberties and properties so much shaken, that no man can say he is master of either, but holds as tenant by courtesy and at will, and may be stripped of them at pleasure. Liberty is too valuable a thing to be easily parted with, and when such mean inducements procure such violent endeavors to tear it from us, we must take leave and say, they have neither heads, hearts, nor souls, that are not moved by the miseries of their country, and are not forward with their utmost power, lawfully to redress them.

      Remonstrance of Lord Cornbury – 1703

      • rici

        Thank you, I will have to read on this history. When you see
        all these abuses we let slide, it leaves you so disillusioned and hopeless; but
        then I can vote, whereas years ago, I would not be able to. Someone else fought
        for my right to vote and so many have died on battlegrounds in good faith of
        our liberties, that you just have to pick yourself up and say, I owe it to
        those after me, the Seventh Generation way of living. And I have come to see
        that our great victories, those of any value have never come from the rich and
        powerful, but from those common and downtrodden, who hung in there. Like
        Stella. Thank you Stella.

        • laager

          Samuel Smith’s: History of New Jersey, published 1765.

          I found it at Google books several years ago.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    ALL  those that favor “arbitration”, Limit yourself FIRST, and show us how it works so well.   No matter your income, limit yourself to $250.00 from ANY and ALL damages to yourself, your family, your company.  There are abuses in everything, including religion.  Granting more power to abuse, to those with great power only invites greater abuse.

    • rici

      This is true about inviting greater abuse. We are assessed,
      analyzed for our ability to protect ourselves.Americans today are in a daze. Predators, those lacking
      integration of their integrity, study us and formulate their approach. This is
      why children are the least protected; the most often victimized as they are
      likewise and sadly never allowed to testify for their defense in court.In letting our legislative system erode, what so
      many people fail to see is that this is a SYSTEM of justice that speaks of our CHARACTER
      as a NATION. You are not just victimizing one, you are victimizing all.

  • http://twitter.com/paulzink Paul Zink

    Thanks for this “heads up”. Sounds like an eye-opening documentary about an important subject. 

  • http://twitter.com/paulzink Paul Zink

    Thanks for this “heads up”. Sounds like an eye-opening documentary about an important and little-understood subject. 

  • Fahma

    Hmmmm…. doesn’t it seem to you all that nearly everything we learn about anti-American actions like these (e.g. attacking our right to seek justice) leads us to a Karl Rove or the Koch brothers or other CINO’s (conservatives in name only)…..

    Just asking.

  • Nancy Moore

    I sometimes thought I was one of very few people who knew the whole story of Ms. Liebeck’s burns just from reading the full reports. My husband & I were on our way to Denver to visit my parents listening to a talk show on a Denver station mocking her & complaining loudly about the jury award. As soon as we arrived (no cell phones then!) I called the show to correct the host’s statements & was shocked at how fast I was cut off & ridiculed. I used to run a talk show on our hometown station in Wyoming & always strove to be sure all sides were heard so I was shocked at how rudely I was cut off. Even now whenever the subject of “frivolous lawsuits” comes up, I’m more often than not either not believed or scoffed at when I try to explain it.
    Nancy Moore (now in Montana listening on Yellowstone Public Radio)

  • Cerdwyn

    As any coffee geek knows, coffee is best when brewed at between 195F and 203F and served IMMEDIATELY. That’s hot people. If you don’t know coffee is hot, don’t drink the stuff.

    Yes her injuries were horrible. But they would have happened had the coffee been 20 degrees cooler. It would have still been hot.

    No one deserves to be ridiculed. But no one deserves a multi-million dollar settlement when they at the very least have shared blame.

    Our criminal and civil justice system is broken. People settle out of court just like John Fusco said because, often in the long run, it’s cheaper. And most of those out of court settlements are not because the person who settled is in the wrong. I will be honest that I didn’t hear the entire segment. I turned the radio off, disgusted.

  • anonymous

    I am an attorney who has defended health care providers in malpractice cases for more than 25 years.

    I was outraged by this interview.

    There was scarcely a single answer in this interview, in which Ms. Saladoff did not twist or distort a fact or a principle of the law.  And in many cases, she simply misstated the law entirely.

    Damages caps almost never take away a plaintiff’s ability to collect almost unlimited expenses for future medical expenses, care expenses, lost income, et cetera.  Damages caps are typically capping only noneconomic damages, like “pain and suffering,” loss of “society and companionship” and “consortium.”  Ms. Saladoff misled the audience when she stated otherwise.

    I am looking forward to a documentary on the fraudulent science behind the silicone gel breast implant litigation.  Or the massive personal injury fraud that was exposed by Judge Janis Jack in Texas.  Where plaintiffs experts had testified for a diagnosis of asbestosis in thousands of claimants.  The trouble was that they had previously diagnosed silicosis in the same claimants.  We have had decades of so-called “birth trauma” litigation, of the kind that made John Edwards a very rich man, taking 30% or 40% contingency fees on cases that he won or settled.  And what we have after all that is vastly increased c-section rates, with virtually no reduction in rates of perinatal injuries, cerebral palsy or other so-called “birth injuries.”

    This nation is awash in meritless litigation. There has been no nation in human history where it has been so easy and so profitable to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit. 

    Ms. Saladoff brought up John Grisham.  But she left out the best Grisham story, and the source of another Grisham book.  That would be personal injury trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs.  Who is currently serving concurrent 5- and 7-year federal prison sentences for bribery and wire fraud in connection with attempts to bribe and influence state court judges.

    • Lagourley Ggb

      Dear Mr Defense Lawyer,
      My son was the victim of medical malpractice in the movie HOT COFFEE and he did NOT recieve enough money for his medical expenses and a life time of care, let alone anything for pain and suffering, when the law capped the jury’s verdict.  There are states that do have a TOTAL CAP and that does not cover your medical expense, especially in cases of catastrophic injury.  Dont you find that outrageous, you cant even recover enough money for your injuries so you can go back to the doctor, to recirculate it back to medical community!

      • anonymous

        Questions for you, ma’am (I haven’t seen the film yet):

        1.  What state did your case occur in?

        2.  What was the total amount of your son’s judgment, after it was reduced in accordance with the applicable cap?

        3.  What were the “costs” associated with the case?  (I’m interested mostly in who the plaintiff experts were, what did they charge, at what hourly rate, and what the total was.)

        4.  What were your attorneys’ fees?  I presume it was a contingency percentage; what was the percentage, and what total amount did they take?

        I thank you for your time and attention in answering these important questions.

  • Jim

    Seems to me like this got off track from a story about the hot coffee incident into a diatribe by Mr. Fusco and others about whether his particular issue was frivilous or not.  Probably would have been better to stick to the story.  Also, the comments about the filmmaker seem to indicate that those folks could not refute the issues about the “hot coffee” and had to resort to attacking the messenger. When you can’t claim the issue is false, the best strategy is to go for the person making the claim.

    My issue is that, though my memory is sketchy and I probably also thought the person filing suit was at fault, I wonder how much of my thoughts and feelings were shaped by the media coverage.  This should have been talked about a little more in the story.  I was surprised to learn of the extent and severity of the injury and that the woman just wanted to make sure that her bills were paid and not out to make a big profit.  The fact that McDonald’s knew there were problems and complaints and did nothing must mean something.  I wonder how hot the coffee must have been to give those kind of burns in such a short time through her clothes.  Also. it might be a good idea to see the documentary before making any kind of judgement, pro or con. 

  • anonymous

    I have a serious question for the producers of Here and Now.

    Clearly, this interview was timed to help promote the showing of “Hot Coffee” on HBO.  And I presume that it probably succeeded, in using the public radio airwaves to let an audience of left/sympathetic listeners know about a film that they are likely to agree with.

    What is also clear is that “Hot Coffee” is a documentary film that was produced with a strong point of view, by an interested partisan trial lawyer, and that it makes no prestense as to fairness or ordinary journalism standards.  The film, in a word, is advocacy.

    Now it is of course the filmmaker’s right to engage in filmmaking advocacy.  And it may even be appropriate for Here and Now to allow itself to be used in the normal promotional tour.  It happens every week, if not most days, with authors doing book tours.

    But the real question is what sort of editorial balance this reveals about Here and Now.  To do this story, about this filmmaker and her film, leads to the obvious question as to when, if ever, Here and Now has otherwise balanced its broadcasting on the subject of Tort Reform?  Will there be another story in the future about tort reform issues, with another point of view?  Or will Here and Now consider the topic covered, now that Ms. Saladoff has given her one side?

    Usually, one might think (especially on public radio with all of its claims of fairness) that a single show might have some internal balance.  Victor Schwartz of the Amrican Tort Reform Association and the head of the Public Policy Section of the national law firm of Shook Hardy and Bacon in Kansas City appered in ‘Hot Coffee.” 

    Mr. Schwartz has claimed in a New York Times story that he was substantially quoted out of context in the movie: 

    Mr. Schwartz has appeared previously on a number of NPR programs.  He woud be an excellent choice to provide a rebuttal to “Hot Coffee” the day after it airs, in a Here and Now follow up story. 

  • Shrdlu42

    Do you know who (or what) accounts for the vast majority of civil litigation in this country?  Corporations suing other corporations.  Now ask yourself this question: if our legal system is so broken, why do corporations employ it so much?

    You want “litigation reform”?  How about caps on what corporate attorneys can receive, especially defense counsel (who drag litigation out and make it more expensive as a tactic)?  How about caps on how much corporations can sue to recover on contracts, or other debts?  How about requiring that for amounts under (say) $100,000 the corporate President must personally appear in small claims court against the plaintiff, no lawyers at all?

    I’m betting you won’t see businessmen rush to embrace this version of “litigation reform”.

    Oh, and note that many of those attacking this documentary haven’t said one word about the FACTS of that coffee case (and the others), only conclusory utterances about their own (allegedly) bad legal experiences, or personal attacks on the film maker.

    Most of all, note that they are employing one of conservatives’ favorite tactics: the “game of perfection”.  That consists of finding examples of mistakes or failures in a program they dislike, and using it as an excuse to do away with it.  In this case, because they (allegedly) had a bad experience with the justice system, its failure to work perfectly means it should be done away with.  Of course, they’d never dream of requiring perfection in the things they favor.  Imagine if someone argued that because of its many imperfections, the “free market” should be abolished?  You’d hear them howl loud and long.

    P.S. – I’m a retired attorney, with experience on “both sides of the fence”.  I worked in Products Liability defense for Michelin Tire Corporation, and know all about frivolous litigation.  But I also saw corporations use every trick in the book to deprive plaintiffs with a “just cause” of their “day in court”.  (Not my company, of course.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Terry-Evans/1313602292 Terry Evans

    To the party who is being sued, all claims are ‘frivolous’, just like to sociopaths, all crimes are victimless crimes.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_B6WZ62HHRDLMVTAQ23ZEYFA3JA yahoo-B6WZ62HHRDLMVTAQ23ZEYFA3JA

    I am, quite frankly, amazed at the hubris involved by those that oppose a citizen’s right to his day in court. I just looked at the Hotcoffee.com website(Set up by a well-connected PR firm) and was amazed at the depth and complexity of it. Several legal “Experts”, a web-based TV show..it boggles the mind; but the reason behind it is clear..convince the uninformed they have no need or right to use the courts..Pretty sad..

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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