Hot Coffee (2010)

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How the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit and similar cases were exploited as part of a right-wing crusade to weaken civil justice.

Most people have heard of that case where the woman complained and subsequently sued McDonald’s because their coffee was too hot. What a wimp, we all thought. People will sue anyone for just about anything these days, or so we have been lead to believe. Hot Coffee sets out to shed some light on this particular case, and uses it as a catalyst to explore the current legal landscape the American citizen finds themselves in as a result of the misunderstanding of these so-called ‘frivolous lawsuits’.

When you picture the ‘hot coffee’ incident, you imagine someone simply having a drink too warm. The same complainers who said their pillows were too hard, the staff too rude and the noise too loud. Someone who loves a moan for no good reason other than they love the sound of their own voice, and using the customer is always right idea to their advantage. The media take this angle, eliminating the facts and presenting an image of an elderly lady who was too old to be enjoying coffee and since then received an unimaginable sum of money from the evil corporation.

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What doesn’t stick in people’s mind quite often, is the truth. The coffee was spilled on her lap which admittedly was her fault, but what wasn’t her fault was the temperature of the coffee itself causing 3rd degree burns and requiring a skin graft to replace the destroyed skin. The temperature of this coffee, to quote Alan Partridge, “was hotter than the sun“. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to McDonalds either; this was another one to join over 700 similar claims as a result of this stupidly hot coffee.

Hot Coffee looks at this case and begins to explore the settlement/damages provided. How much of it did the claimant get to keep? Answer: not all of it. But it was a sizable amount, and due to the media and general public perception that you could sue for anything, it put enough smoke up the arses of big businesses to quickly find ways for damage limitation to ensure the same fate did not await them. This took shape by the way of Tort Reform, which is intended to weed out the pathetic court cases and place a cap on the damages that can be claimed.

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The knock-on effect of this is shown through 3 other cases. Each case clearly showing the negative impacts of tort reform, and how a ‘one size fits all’ approach wont work when you consider the varied nature of the court appeals. But who cares when big businesses are now protected, health care costs rise for the general public and tax payers pay more to support those who have experienced wrong-doing. Nobody is accountable anymore, and you’re all fucked.

As if it wasn’t enough, to avoid it even getting to that stage Mandatory Arbitration clauses have been slowly introduced, that plague everything from credit card contracts to employment contracts. Signing one of these essentially waives your right to take the company related to that contract to court, and seek any form of compensation. In a very extreme example, they show the case of Jamie Leigh-Jones – a 19-year-old who went to work for Halliburton in Iraq. Stationed in all male accommodation despite being told otherwise, she was then allegedly raped, beaten and locked in a shipping container until freed by soldiers on the ground. While her story itself further highlights the he said/she said grey area in rape cases, as it was established that in light of the dubious character portrayal of Jamie and supposed embellishing of the facts she lost her case, the important issue here is that if it were true – it was Halliburton’s fault, and she was helpless.

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She could not even get it to the stage of a fair trial because she had signed away her right to do so. Instead, her claim was to be settled in a private court ran with a judge who works on the basis of repeat business from private companies. It doesn’t seem right.

Hot Coffee sets out to make a bold statement, and does so very well. It is a concise, passionate and detailed documentary that is easy to understand. By bringing to light and creating an understanding of issues like Tort Reform, Mandatory Arbitration and highlighting that organisations like ‘The US Chamber of Commerce’ is actually not a government entity. While nothing till change overnight, it encourages viewers to review what they are signing, and that by providing educational overviews such as this, it hopes the individual who previously voted for Tort Reform, will now think twice if it comes about again for reconsideration.

Hot Coffee is on UK Netflix, and will be sure to feature on the Part 2 of my Top Docs on Netflix

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