“Hot Coffee” Documentary Details How Tort Reform Movement Gathered Steam

Almost certainly, you have heard of the 1990s case involving the woman who was awarded millions of dollars after spilling takeout coffee in her lap. The case was upheld as an example of how absurd our justice system had become, how out-of-control juries were getting and why civil justice reform couldn’t come soon enough.
However, there are a lot of things you probably don’t know about the case. This includes the fact that news of the outcome was manipulated by corporate interests as part of an ongoing public relations campaign to severely undercut public access to and benefits from civil court. It became the catalyst for a wave of damage caps enacted by state legislators, as well as the start of more companies using mandatory arbitration agreements to force people to settle their disputes out of court. The public was told these steps were in their bests interests, because high damage awards to injured parties resulted in higher costs to them for everything from auto insurance to health care to their next cup of coffee.

Our Boston personal injury lawyers know this is patently false, as is the idea that the plaintiff in the so-called “hot coffee case” was out for a quick payday. All of this is the subject of a new documentary entitled, “Hot Coffee,” available on DVD and Netflix streaming.

It’s worth watching, especially if you are of the mind that tort reform is in the best interest of the average person. The reality is, civil court is the one place people can go toe-to-toe with big corporations and insurers to receive impartial consideration of their grievance. Limiting public access and awards in these cases has been a major victory for big business in recent years.

Let’s start with the “hot coffee case.” Plaintiff was 76-years-old when she stopped in the drive-thru with her nephew to purchase a fast-food coffee. She was in the passenger seat, stopped in a parking spot, when she was putting in her cream and sugar and the drink slipped. It was so hot, that within a matter of seconds, the beverage on her legs, inner thighs and genitals caused severe third-degree burns requiring an extensive stay in the hospital and skin-grafting surgery.

Company executives would later admit the beverage was “not fit for consumption” because it was far too hot. In fact, at 190 degrees Fahrenheit, it was at least 60 degrees hotter than what executives knew to be safe, as evidence by internal studies and other documentation. Additionally, the firm had received approximately 800 prior complaints from others who had been severely burned by the beverage. And yet, the company did nothing to make consumers safer.

Although plaintiff won her case (the judgment was later reduced to less than $500,000), the company won the public relations campaign. The media jumped on the verdict as if it was outrageous – and the public to this day isn’t fully informed on the facts.

This was the start of a flood of damage caps, limiting the amount of money those in civil cases could collect. Problematically, those who suffer the most are those who have been harmed the greatest. Detailed in the documentary is the story of an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy, caused by a lack of oxygen at birth attributed to medical malpractice. Although he received a $5.65 million award in trial to cover his medical expenses, the state-mandated cap meant he could only collect $1.25 million – nowhere near enough to compensate him or his family for what they have endured.

In another case, a woman allegedly raped by a co-worker while in Iraq working for an independent U.S. contractor was denied justice in the criminal system. She subsequently sought to hold the company accountable for security failures by bringing the case to civil court. However, she was denied a jury trial due to a mandatory arbitration clause buried in the fine print of her employment agreement.

“Hot Coffee” shows the real faces behind these cases. Personal injury claims are not about plaintiff attorney greed or those with minor injuries looking for a quick pay day. The impact on these peoples’ lives from these incidents is often profound and lasting. Yes, attorneys need to make a living. But most of us who choose this particular field of law do so because we are compelled to advocate for those who are victimized and disenfranchised. We may not be able to give them back the life they had or the loved one they lost. But verdicts in our favor help ensure negligent people and corporations will be held accountable, and may alter their actions to prevent future injury to others.

If you are injured in Massachusetts, call Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers for a free and confidential appointment — (617) 777-7777.

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More Blog Entries:
Durban v. Waverly Sales Company: Assumption of Risk in Negligence Actions, Aug. 7, 2014, Boston Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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