Review of Hot Coffee Documentary

July 26, 2011

Last week, my wife and I happened upon “Hot Coffee”, the 2011 documentary film analyzing the impact of tort reform on the judicial system, in our often neglected DVR queue while looking for something to watch before turning in for the night. I recollected that when I had set the recording a few weeks back, I felt smugly self-satisfied that I had chosen to record a serious documentary germane to my profession.  Yet, the facts that I had yet to watch said documentary and that I spent the entire previous Saturday knee-deep in a Doctor Who marathon were ugly reminders that my tastes in entertainment remained decidedly escapist.

A sudden pang of guilt overtook me as I thumbed the remote control and I exclaimed to my wife, “Hey, I think we really ought to watch this documentary on tort reform.”  She wrinkled her nose in reply.  “Put on what you want,” she said,” I’ll be asleep in five minutes, anyway.”  86 minutes later not only was she awake, but eager to engage me in a debate about the relative merits of tort reform.

Hot Coffee, directed by former medical malpractice attorney Susan Saladoff, premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and recently aired on HBO as a part of their documentary film series. The film takes its name from the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in which a New Mexico jury after awarded $2.86 million in damages to a woman who was severely burned by hot coffee purchased in a McDonald’s drive-thru.  Saladoff uses the aforementioned case and several others to frame an examination of tort reform discuss such issues as damage caps and mandatory arbitration. The Liebeck case is presented as a catalyst for the tort reform movement and the film explores how the media frenzy surrounding the controversial jury award and public reaction fomented legislation limiting damages in several states. 

As I have taken to watching all television with my iPad in my lap, I immediately hopped on to my handy WestlawNext app and quickly typed “Liebeck “ and “Coffee” into WestSearch. I immediately found Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S., Inc., 1995 WL 360309 and scanned the decision. As discussed in the film, the bulk of the award was for punitive damages in the amount of $2,700,000. I clicked on the KeyCite button and took a look at some of related filings. Upon reading the amended complaint, I was interested to find that the plaintiff only sued for punitive damages in the amount of compensatory damages.

 I also took the opportunity to browse some of the other fascinating materials available, including expert materials such as the deposition of Dr. David Arrendo, MD, the physician who treated Ms. Liebeck upon her arrival in the emergency room.

What I found most interesting, however, was that the red KeyCite Flag at the top of the screen indicated that the judgment that had caused so much controversy had been vacated! I clicked on Keycite and delved into the history. As it turns out, upon post-trial motions, the presiding judge reduced the punitive damages to treble the compensatory damages awarded, $480,000. The plaintiff then moved to vacate the judgment and subsequent order in favor of new trial and, as the defendant did not oppose, the judgment was vacated. A settlement was reached before the new trial, however.

Hot Coffee does an excellent job presenting its position in a clear and compelling manner, illustrating its arguments with actual cases. As fascinating as the documentary subject was, I was happy to have the primary source material available via WestlawNext to further inform my opinion. 

 Click here to watch a Reuters Insider interview with Hot Coffee’s director Susan Saladoff.

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