We all think we know the story of the woman who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and then sued the fast food chain for millions. But in the new HBO documentary "Hot Coffee", filmmaker Susan Saladoff shows how the media got the story all wrong, and often demonizes civil litigation, using phrases like “frivolous lawsuit” and “jackpot justice.” She says the distortion of civil cases is part of a big PR push to discourage people from suing big business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 1992 a young woman drove away from a McDonald's with a cup of coffee resting between her knees. She spilled the coffee in her lap, sued McDonald's for millions and won. It's such a well known part of pop culture it made its way into a Seinfeld episode.
KRAMER: I spoke to a lawyer. We’re suing for millions.
JERRY: Suing? What for?
KRAMER: My coffee was too hot!
JERRY: It was supposed to be hot!
KRAMER: Not that hot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That someone could spill hot coffee on themselves and cash in for millions is laughable, but the story, as most of us know it, simply isn't true. In a new HBO documentary titled Hot Coffee former public interest lawyer turned filmmaker Susan Saladoff illustrates how the media distorted this case, and many others, and was used as part of a broader campaign to demonize litigation and prompt change in the civil justice system. Susan, welcome to On the Media.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Thank you, Brooke. I appreciate you having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s start with the McDonald's coffee lawsuit. I mentioned what most people think they know about the case, but what actually happened?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Well, first of all, she wasn't a young woman; she was 79 years old. Mrs. Liebeck was a passenger in a parked car. McDonald's put the cream and sugar in the bag. This was an old- fashioned styrofoam cup, one of those small ones with a flat plastic lids that had the little triangular opening that nobody could actually open. And she tried to open that, couldn’t, so she took the top off. And the coffee was so hot that the cup literally collapsed. The coffee spilled into her lap, caused third degree burns, which are the worst kind of burns that anyone could get.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We saw the pictures in the documentary, absolutely hellacious. We also learned that McDonald’s kept its coffee at the time at a standing temperature between 180 and 190 degrees, which a doctor said could account easily for the third degree burns.
SUSAN SALADOFF: In fact, the quality assurance representative for McDonald's testified at trial that you can't drink coffee between a 180 and 190 degrees, which, in fact, was their holding temperature by policy. And he said if you try to drink coffee at that temperature you will get burned. So they knew this, and they had over 700 claims that they had paid out, and still did not reduce their coffee temperature.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, the jury awarded her 2.9 million dollars which was later reduced by a judge to 640,000 dollars.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Right. And Mrs. Liebeck, by the way, wasn’t looking for millions of dollars. All she wanted was the difference between what Medicare paid and what her medical bills were. And McDonald's never offered more than 800 dollars, at any time. And the jury did find her at fault. They found her 20 percent at fault because she, in fact, did spill the coffee on herself.
But they found McDonald's 80 percent at fault because they had this long history of knowing that they were burning their customers and that they weren't doing anything about it. In fact, they were pretty callous about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your film you interview people on the street, and - and they don't know that side of the story.
WOMAN: But she was driving the car -
MAN: Tried to drive and drink it at the same time…
WOMAN: I don’t know, it might have popped open and spilled on her lap.
MAN: Had it between her legs -
WOMAN: - spilled in her lap, it was too hot -
MAN: - and then sued McDonald’s -
MAN: - for millions of dollars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did the reality of the incident and the public perception of the incident differ so much?
SUSAN SALADOFF: What’s so crazy is that the night of the verdict Jane Pauley was sitting in for Tom Brokaw in the NBC Nightly News, and she reported to the world the incorrect facts, that this woman was driving the car when the coffee spilled. The facts of this case were continually distorted by the media.
You know, everyone likes the sensationalized headlines and the sexy, you know, big verdict for something crazy. People believe that because when you say these things enough times, people tend to think that they're true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there's a media narrative here, and maybe out of laziness or inattention it never got corrected. But you also detail a very large PR campaign by big business to demonize this kind of litigation.
SUSAN SALADOFF: At the time that this verdict was rendered by the jury, there was a very big political push in this country by the Republican party for so-called tort reform.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about tort reform. This phrase was one of the clarion calls of groups that were funded solely by big business that passed off as grass roots organizations, what's known as astroturf.
SUSAN SALADOFF: There was a huge public relations campaign started by large corporations, and they called them Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse or CALAs. And they were set up all over the country as if citizens sprung up spontaneously, outraged by all these lawsuits when, in fact, these Citizens Against Lawsuits groups, they were made up out of whole cloth from the public relations campaigns of groups like the American Tort Reform Association.
Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds were big backers of these Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse groups because they made a product that killed people, and people were starting to use the civil courts to hold them accountable. We're talking about really 25 years ago or more is when it started.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, as a matter of fact, you note in the film a kind of proto-McDonald's story in a story about a telephone booth that President Ronald Reagan recounts.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: In California a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of her car and crashed into the phone booth. It’s no surprise that the injured man sued, but you might be startled to hear whom he sued, the telephone company and associated firms. That's right.
SUSAN SALADOFF: The telephone booth was in a very dangerous place and it had been hit several times. And the telephone company had never properly fixed the door, so even though he was trying to get out he couldn't get out until he was hit in the booth. He lost his leg. And so, it wasn’t a real - a real joke the way President Reagan had portrayed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a whole other media angle to this which involves Citizen United, that ground- breaking decision by the Supreme Court to accord corporations the rights of individuals to free speech and to enable them basically to funnel unlimited amounts of money into political advertising.
SUSAN SALADOFF: So in most of our states now we elect our judges. And that means they have to raise money. And what's happened over the last many years is that large corporate interests have decided well, we want to get rid of these judges who are on our State supreme courts who are more pro consumer.
And so, they started handpicking candidates and funneling money into their campaigns, again, through front groups like Citizens for a Stronger Ohio or Citizens for a Safer Community.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which most people don't know is the largest lobbying group for corporations in the world. They've been shown to be funneling money into these political campaigns.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this was long before Citizens United. In fact, you have John Grisham talking about his book, The Appeal:
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
JOHN GRISHAM: The appeal was a book I published. It was always a novel. It’s completely fiction and it’s completely true. It's the story of the purchasing of a Supreme Court seat in Mississippi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell us about the fate of Mississippi Judge Oliver Diaz.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Justice Diaz was on the Mississippi State Supreme Court, and he was targeted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because he wasn't pro-business enough.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Diaz even voted to overturn a cocaine conviction because evidence of a prior cocaine sale was allowed. Oliver Diaz, very bad judgment!
SUSAN SALADOFF: The statistics are that the candidate who has the most money for political ads will win about 90% percent of the time. He actually wound up winning the race, despite all of the money that was put into his opponent’s race, and when he won he was then brought up on false criminal charges and was acquitted but was off the bench for three years while he was fighting those charges.
And then, of course, his reputation was tarnished and he was unable to win in the next election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think one of the most alarming images from your gripping documentary is simply the picture of a headline from a paper in Mississippi, which read, “Mississippi Victims Losing 100 Percent of Appeals. Court Ignoring Juries.”
SUSAN SALADOFF: For two years a plaintiff, a person who was injured, even if they won a case, could not have their verdict upheld by the State Supreme Courts. And this was happening all over the country, not just in Mississippi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have a big dog in this fight, don't you, Susan, having practiced as a personal injury lawyer for years? Isn’t your film just shriekingly one-sided?
SUSAN SALADOFF: I definitely have a point of view. I lived this. This is my truth. I practiced law for 25 years and I saw for all of those years how difficult it was for people to get justice, because the system is totally rigged against the average person.
And most people didn't get it until they needed it, until it affected them personally, and then when they needed the system and they realized, oh my, the system isn't there for me.
I just got angry and I wanted the truth to come out. Everybody's heard the other side of the story, but nobody's heard this side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are frivolous lawsuits that waste taxpayer time and money, wouldn’t you concede?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Are there are outliers, are there some cases they get to court that shouldn't? Of course. We can't prevent that. We have a system where if a person is injured they get the right to bring a case.
But are there checks and balances in the system already? Absolutely. If you file a case and the judge believes that it's truly frivolous, number one, the judge will throw it out, and the person can get fined. And then there are also checks and balances, as in the McDonald's case, where the judge can reduce the verdict.
The reason we're talking about all these frivolous lawsuits is, again, because of this huge public relations campaign that was repeated over and over again: Greedy trial lawyer, frivolous lawsuit, jackpot justice. When you repeat things so many times, we start to believe these things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan, thank you very much.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Susan Saladoff’s HBO documentary is titled Hot Coffee. Her web site is Hotcoffeethemovie.com.