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Hot Coffee Review: Tort Reform is a Sham

By Dustin Rowles | Film | June 27, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | June 27, 2011 |

Tort reform is a sham, folks. It was something dreamed up by huge billion dollar conglomerates in order to increase their profit margins. Really, all you need to know is that one of the major engineers of tort reform law in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s was Karl Rove. Guess who benefits the most from tort reform? People like Karl Rove. Big oil. Credit card companies, The insurance industry. Tort reform was basically designed to take the jury out of the equation.

The case that really spearheaded tort reform was the McDonald’s hot coffee case, a lawsuit that most people have heard about, but very few know the actual details. Thanks to lawmakers who have vested interests in tort reform in the form of campaign contributions and corporations that used the McDonald’s coffee case as its poster case, what most people think they know is that it’s about an old lady who spilled a little coffee on her lap and got a little burn and won millions of dollars. But what if I told you that the actual burns looked like this:


and that Stella Liebeck, the 80-something-year-old woman who suffered those burns, only asked McDonalds to pay for her medical expenses, to cover the skin grafts she had to receive because of that coffee. And that she sued because McDonalds only offered her $800. And that there were 700 other reported similar burn cases. And that, while the jury did award her $2.7 million — mostly in punitive damages, as a message to McDonalds to lower their coffee holding temperature, which was at 190 degrees — the judge actually reduced it to only $480,000.

McDonald’s and other huge corporations turned that $480,000 into a billion dollar windfall by using it as the impetus for tort reform and for passing laws to establish caps in damages for civil lawsuits. Caps in damages are great, right? They protect the medical establishment, right? If an OBGYN commits egregious negligence, and your child ends up with severe brain damage and institutionalized the rest of his life, at a cost of $6 million or so, the insurance company — thanks to caps in damages — will only have to pay, say, $1.25 million. Who picks up the rest? You do, of course. The taxpayers who pay into Medicaid will pay for it. But we’re protecting medical malpractice premiums, right? Not exactly: In states where there are caps in damages, medical malpractice premiums are actually higher, and in all cases, increased after these caps were passed. That means more money for AIG, which it will then lose, which the government can then bail out. Awesome.

And we voted for it, thanks to very effective marketing, largely by that very nice, helpful organization called the Chamber of Commerce. Who sits on the board of the Chamber of Commerce? People like the CEOs of Pepsi, Coke, Phillip Morris, and a lot of Insurance corporations. They all look like this:


They love tort reform because it means more trophy wives!

The documentary Hot Coffee explores tort reform and attempts to offset the disinformation campaign produced by giant corporations. Tort reform and medical malpractice caps are hot button political topics, mentioned in all of George W. Bush’s State of the Union addresses (see also, Karl Rove), and even President Obama’s most recent SOTU address. There’s such a huge corporate-funded marketing campaign behind tort reform that few people understand the reality: It mostly benefits corporations at the expense of taking away a jury’s right to make a decision. A jury can still decide if someone can get the death penalty, of course, but apparently, a jury is just too wild and unpredictable to be allowed to decide how much an insurance provider has to pay if 1,000 kids get sick because of lead in toys. They tried to give Stella Liebeck $2.7 million, or two day’s worth of profit on McDonald’s coffee as a message to the restaurant to lower the temperature of its coffee (it has since done so) and to improve the lid design so that even more people don’t end up with severe burns. How unreasonable!

Hot Coffee uses four cases to illustrate its points: The McDonalds hot coffee case; a medical malpractice case where a family was screwed out of a much-needed jury award because of caps of damages; an anti-big business judge in Mississippi who was ran off the bench by the Chamber of Commerce; and a mandatory arbitration case where a female Halliburton employee was gang-raped by her co-workers, held in a storage facility and then was essentially fired for refusing to return to her workplace. She was forced to submit to arbitration instead of taking her claims to court. Guess who arbitrates these cases? People friendly to the corporations, arbitrators who know — if they don’t side with the businesses — will not be rehired as an arbitrator.

Granted, these cases were cherry picked, and there certainly are frivolous lawsuits, but then again, the tort reform folks have billions of dollars to back up their cherry-picked arguments. The anti-tort reform folks just have this documentary, which no one will see. But you should. And I have no doubt it’s exactly the kind of documentary that will show up on Netflix Instant in six months. And when it does, I will remind you to watch so that you, too, can share in the outrage.

Hot Coffee screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.