An Independence Day flick: ‘Hot Coffee,’ tort reform, and the American lawsuit

By Michael Finch, Roosevelt Summer Academy Fellow at NCL

Newspapers and the blogosphere are buzzing about Susan Saladoff’s documentary, “Hot Coffee,” which premiered July 27th on HBO. The award-winning documentary explores the issues of tort reform and mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts, and the people they can hurt. Saladoff also wrote a blog at Politico, called “Signing away constitutional rights,” which deals with the same issues as the film.

Saladoff’s Politico blog and documentary seem to be pretty effectively spreading the word about the inaccuracy of the “Americans love to file frivolous lawsuits” meme that exists in our culture.

The movie’s namesake is the widely-known and oft-maligned case of a woman (Stella Liebeck) who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and sued for millions. But as Saladoff’s documentary shows, the situation is nothing like people think. Liebeck’s injuries were extensive, McDonald’s had received reports that their coffee was too hot and had burnt other consumers, and Liebeck never asked for, nor did she receive, “millions.” She initially asked only for $20,000, to pay for past and projected medical expenses and loss of income. McDonald’s offered her $800. The case escalated, repeatedly, and Liebeck ended up being awarded less than $600,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Liebeck’s case, however, is an outlier. The even more important issue that Saladoff’s film brings up is the push for tort reform. There is a great deal of risk that enacting tort reform will deprive people of help that they desperately need. People use the court system as a last resort, not as a quick way to make a buck. If the number of people suing for frivolous reasons is grossly exaggerated, then the only result of making it even more of a hassle to bring a case to court will be hampering people with legitimate concerns.

For example, medical malpractice is an area that many people say is full of frivolous lawsuits, and many tort reform discussions center around this issue. However, according to an article by Drs. John Glasson and David Orentlicher in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only 2% of “adverse events due to negligent practice” lead to malpractice claims.

For most people, the court system is simply too difficult to navigate, and the expense and time required to bring a suit outweigh the potential benefits. Unless we greatly change how we view access to and use of the American legal system, any tort reform we enact will carry too great a risk of harming innocent people.

Hopefully “Hot Coffee” will spread the truth and open some eyes to the very real dangers of mandatory arbitration clauses, and this pervasive but inaccurate view of our justice system. Susan Saladoff should be applauded for bringing attention to this very important issue.

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One thought on “An Independence Day flick: ‘Hot Coffee,’ tort reform, and the American lawsuit

  1. Your comments regarding the prevailing view on frivolous lawsuits reminded me of an old report that that looked at the personal practices of prominent tort reform advocates. It’s still online at http://www.centerjd.org/archives/studies/MDHypocrites.pdf

    This story, first published in 2003, notes that George W. Bush, John Stossel, founder of the Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse group Sterling Cornelius, not to mention AETNA, E.I. Lily, Kodak, etc., were not impeded by their own rhetoric when it came to what you & I might perceive as frivolous lawsuits. No closed court house doors for them!

    “Hot Coffee” is a welcome reality check, and I hope it can help change the rhetoric and start the reversal of rules that now prevent citizens from using their own courts.

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