Hot Coffee

The NH Association for Justice recently screened a documentary entitled “Hot Coffee” at the Red River Theater in Concord.  The public was invited.  The attendees were from the legal and legislative communities mostly.  The film’s title refers to the famous McDonalds personal injury case where the Plaintiff was awarded over one million dollars for damages sustained when coffee purchased at a McDonalds drive through window spilled in her lap.  The film, produced by a plaintiff’s trial lawyer from the West Coast, is set up much as a legal file would be only in the form of a film.  It sets out the facts, analyzes them, and tries to make a conclusion about what the significance is.

I left the film with three main ideas.  First, the McDonalds Hot Coffee case was grossly mischaracterized in the press.  The facts showed that the Plaintiff was very badly burned and her lifestyle was significantly limited by the incident.  The compensatory damages were not unreasonable.  The punitive damages awarded that put the verdict over one million dollars (and were later decreased by the Court) are based on the McDonalds decision to ignore the mounting number of burn cases reported.  One is reminded of the Ford Pinto cases where the manufacturer knew people would get burned to death as a result of rear end collisions but decided against a recall.  It seemed the cost of the recall was more than projected cost of wrongful death suits.  The punitive damages took care of future such cost benefit decisions or so one would think.

The second idea was that tort reform (putting dollar limits on personal injury awards) grew from this case as a political trick to get contributors to campaigns (insurance companies) a cap on their cost of doing business (paying claims) on the promise of reducing premiums (it didn’t.)  The big lie at work once again.  The film tells the story of a tort reform supporter, later an injured accident victim,  who was incensed that a cap on his damages limited his recovery said “but that is for those fakers who bring frivolous law suits, not for me!” or something to that effect.

The third idea is that the word must be spread.  Each day the gap between haves and have-nots widens.  The resources of the average person shrinks while the power of corporations without a conscience grows.  We need the access to the Courts in order to make each person, company, and entity responsible for its actions.  Without it, fairness is lost and chaos is soon to follow.

I recommend Hot Coffee as an important film for any person to watch and consider.

By:  Kent M. Barker

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