We get a lot wrong in our media-transfixed culture, where a wry quip and populist outrage almost always trump any understanding of complicated facts. But rarely do we get someone as wrong as we got Stella Liebeck.
You already know her without knowing you know her. She’s the 79-year-old woman who horribly scalded her upper legs and groin when she spilled a 49-cent cup of coffee purchased at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque 19 years ago. She sued only to cover her medical costs, but a jury awarded her $2.86 million in punitive damages.
For some reason — which is the crux of first-time filmmaker Susan Saladoff’s extraordinary and determinedly persuasive HBO documentary, “Hot Coffee,” which airs Monday night — all of America overreacted. Eventually, the award was reduced and settled out of court for a mid-six-figure sum. But Liebeck’s legacy (she died in 2004) was to become the unwitting poster child for tort reform and the war on “frivolous lawsuits,” ushering in an era of damage award caps, mandatory arbitration clauses and a host of other erosions in the rights of plaintiffs.
After a collage of “coffee lady” jokes and tirades, compiled from late-night talk shows, “Seinfeld,” Sunday-morning pundits and legislative chambers, Saladoff does something devastatingly smart right off the bat: She asks people on the street about the woman who spilled the coffee on herself. To a person, each of them believes Liebeck’s case was to some degree egregious on the plaintiff’s part. Then Saladoff shows them the gruesome photos of Liebeck’s burned groin. Instantly, opinions waver.
Saladoff is a former public interest lawyer, and while I’m sure that proponents of tort reform will cry foul at “Hot Coffee’s” tactics, they would be hard-pressed to make a documentary about their own stance seem as sensible or compelling.
For to really embrace tort reform, you have to be willing to treat all potential plaintiffs as no-good grifters. That includes yourself, God forbid you should ever suffer an injury because of safety violations or medical malpractice or — in the case of a KBR Halliburton employee who went to Iraq and was allegedly raped by her co-workers — you signed employment forms without wading through an obfuscating amount of fine print.
To support tort reform, you have to believe all lawsuits against businesses are a threat to the free market. You have to acquiesce to the so-called invisible hand, and guess what? As Saladoff shows, each of us at present relinquishes our right to sue in all sorts of everyday consumer transactions — while using credit cards, cellphones and a host of other products.
Unlike so many documentaries these days, “Hot Coffee” is refreshingly unadorned or manipulated for artistic or tear-jerking effect. It winnows down complicated legal arguments and anecdotal cases with compassion and clarity. It does everything a documentary can do — which, in terms of effecting change, isn’t much. But if nothing else, it has at least given Stella Liebeck what McDonald’s and Jay Leno did not: understanding.
(90 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m.