The Truth About McDonald's "Hot Coffee Lawsuit" & Why It Matters (Video)


Image credit: Hot Coffee

Most of us have heard of it. And many of us, myself included, have used it anecdotally as the perfect example of litigation culture gone mad. Yet a new documentary tells a very different version of the story about Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald's, and what it means about the balance of power between individuals, the state, and the corporate world.

But what's that got to do with environmentalism?
Hot Coffee is a documentary movie that follows the stories of four ordinary Americans as they try to right perceived wrongs—and uses these stories to explore how corporate interests have stacked the cards to limit access to the court system.

Using the case of Stella Liebeck, for example, we learn that while she became a laughing stock and the butt of jokes on everything from Seinfeld to The Simpsons, the actual facts of the case point to very real, very dangerous malpractice on behalf of McDonalds. PublicCitizen has an excellent summary of the real facts behind the hot coffee case:


  • McDonald's Operations Manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit;

  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns (the worst kind of burn) in three to seven seconds;

  • Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years;

  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and bio-mechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor in chief of the leading scholarly publication in the specialty, the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation;

  • McDonald's admitted that it has known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years -- the risk was brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits, to no avail;

  • From 1982 to 1992, McDonald's coffee burned more than 700 people, many receiving severe burns to the genital area, perineum, inner thighs, and buttocks;

  • Not only men and women, but also children and infants, have been burned by McDonald's scalding hot coffee, in some instances due to inadvertent spillage by McDonald's employees;

In addition to Stella Liebeck's story, Hot Coffee also explores the case of 16-year-old Colin Gourley, whose severe brain damage was caused by malpractice at birth, and whose family were prevented from collecting the majority the economic damages they were awarded in court due to Nebraska's state mandated caps on damages; the case of Oliver Diaz, a state supreme court judge who was prosecuted but aquited on criminal charges that he believes were intended to unseat him for his opposition to tort reform; and finally Jamie Leigh Jones, a K.B.R./Halliburton employee who was drugged and gang raped by colleagues in Iraq, but was prevented from having a jury trial due to a mandatory arbitration clause in her contract.

While none of these stories are directly related to environmental causes, the green minded among us would do well to take note. From Koch Industries attempts to distort the climate change debate to efforts by food producers to bury information related to cancer, heart disease and our diets, the power of successful PR campaigns and spin should not be underestimated.

To be fair, I don't mean to tell the usual tale of corporations as evil villains out to rule the world. (Eco-villains are a concept of limited use.) Spin can come from all angles—including the green movement. And the pages of TreeHugger are also filled with many examples of the corporate world doing things right too. But Hot Coffee reminds us to always think critically about what information we get and from where, to be aware of the power of money in shaping and dominating a debate, and to always keep asking questions—no matter who is telling you what.

Hot Coffee is currently showing on HBO and HBO On Demand.

More on Corporate Interests and Public Debate
How the Food Industry Fights to Keep Us Sick (Video)
Koch Industries Spent $55 Million on Climate Denial
Annie Leonard Derides Corporate Influences on American Democracy

Tags: Economics | Ethical | United States

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