The documentary Hot Coffee by Susan Saladoff was exceptionally inspiring to contemplate the commonly accepted ideas on the United States legal system. Hot Coffee begins by clarifying the truth behind the lawsuit of Liebeck v. McDonalds Restaurants. After presenting what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the documentary leads into the tort reform movement that has been confining civil rights since the beginning.
Showing how dissembled the tort reform has been, Hot Coffee presents the spilled coffee case and many other cases about how the tort reform is affecting different people, and the reproductions of constitutional rights being relinquished with, or without, knowledge of it occurring. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, 79 year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat when she spilled her coffee on her lap while trying to add cream and sugar. The co? ee was estimated to be somewhere between 180 to 190 degrees. At temperatures this high, she suffered from third-degree burns on her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas.
Showing the photos of these burns was intense and tragic. While her medical expenses totaling approximately $11,000, McDonald’s refused. Instead, McDonald’s countered with a generous o? er of $800. The lawsuit ended with Stella Liebeck’s injuries meriting an award of $200,000 compensatory damages; however that award was reduced proportionately to $160,000. The jury also awarded Ms. Liebeck $2. 7 million in punitive damages, but because it was allegedly a fraudulent lawsuit, it was reduced by the trial court to $480,000 and stated that McDonald’s engaged in “willful, reckless, malicious, or wanton conduct”.
Although this was a reasonable lawsuit, it was occurring when tort reform was gaining speed in the public eye, and was used in different means in the communities to help grow the idea of frivolous lawsuits. A tort is a non-criminal civil wrong that is caused either on purpose or through negligence (Simon, Eddins & Greenstone, LLP). The tort reform movement has been funded through corporations and big businesses due to those bodies frequently committing the harm that results in damages awards through the civil justice system.
Capping damages on a lawsuit, would keep their costs down, and one way to do that is making the people believe that there are only frivolous lawsuits where people want to hit the jackpot in court. Corporations have developed (CALA) Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which has no real people in it, and (ATRA) American Tort Reform Association. George W. Bush headed the political side of ATRA, and politicians became a huge way for companies to control what decisions are made in the court room. Since corporate America and republican congress failed to pass federal tort reform legislation, they turned their efforts to the states.
Caps on damages have three categories: punitive, non-economic, and total caps. The Gourley v Nebraska Methodist Health Care System presented in the documentary exposed how the verdict in a medical lawsuit was capped due to the results of tort reform in the states. Lisa Gourley (husband Mike Gourley) was 36 weeks pregnant with twins and having uncertainties about movements of the fetuses. Lisa inquired about her and her children’s health at her regularly scheduled doctor appointment with Dr. Knolla. She was ensured that everything was ok.
Meeting with a different doctor two days later, she was told there was a problem with both fetuses receiving enough oxygen, and was sent to the hospital for immediate childbirth. The standard at the hospital for this kind of situation requires her doctor to perform an emergency cesarean section (C-section) within 10 minutes of her arrival. In Lisa’s case, this did not occur, and the twins (Colin and Connor) were not delivered until about two hours later. Colin was not getting enough oxygen, and suffered severe brain damages.
If they were delivered on time, it would have been fine. After a 3 week trial, the jury found that Dr. Knolla’s negligence caused Colin’s drain injury, and awarded $5. 6 million in damages. Since the law in Nebraska capped all damages, and verdict was reduced to $1. 25 million (Hot Coffee, 2011). The tort reform has caused the tax payers to cover Colin’s medical care. Due to him not receiving enough money to cover his medical costs from the lawsuit, and having to be placed on Medicare. This measures a cost fluctuating from liable corporations to the average taxpayer. Hot Coffee also showed how big business and the tort reform movement influenced politicians to sign tort reform measures into law.
The US Supreme Court decided to grant corporations the right to give unlimited campaign money to running officials in Citizen’s United v Federal Election Commission, permitting even greater corporate influence in electing judges than before. This allowed control over giving money to business oriented judges that would rule toward corporate in cases. A major contributor is the US Chamber of Commerce, which is not a government agency, but a membership organization of businesses. Oliver Diaz, a former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, ran for reelection for his seat in 2000.
While he decided that he would not agree to favor companies in court cases, the other candidate did not. This caused the US Chamber of Commerce fund the other candidate in the election campaign, which was an extremely well-financed. Oliver Diaz even had to take out a loan for his campaign. Although the race was overwhelmed with resistance from big business, Diaz won his re-election. Upon his win, he was then prosecuted on false charges to smear his reputation. He was forced off the bench for three years to fight the charges of bribery and tax evasion.
Even though he was acquitted of all charged, and allowed to return to his bench, Oliver Diaz lost the re-election to judge Randy Pierce, in 2008. The documentary explains what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones’s while working at KBR/Halliburton. At 19 years old, while working in Iraq, Jamie was drugged, beaten, and rapped by coworkers. Once she contacted the company after this incident, she was locked in a shipping container with armed guards. One of the guards gave her a phone to call her father, who then contacted Senator Al Franken for help.
When she decided to bring KBR/Halliburton to court, it was shown that Jamie Jones signed an employment agreement that was mandatory to all of her work-related claims to be determined through private arbitration. While arbitration settles a dispute between the company and the employee without a court hearing by an arbitrator, most arbitrators will side with the company so they can continue to do business with them. Many companies have mandatory arbitration clauses that are in fine print so some people don’t even notice that they are signing it.
This is how corporations can have employees give up the civil jury to police themselves. Senator Al Franken passed his first bill to exclude mandatory arbitration clauses for sexual assault. Although Jamie Leigh Jones did not reach civil court when this documentary was filmed, she did in June, 2011. The result was in favor to the defendants. Hot Coffee reviews many cases, all being based around torts and the tort reform. Tort reform is essentially any attempt to limit someone’s rights to seek redress in a court of law for a civil wrong (Simon, Eddins & Greenstone, LLP).
Several other legal elements arise in this documentary including, but not limited to; Amendment VII, negligence, duty of care, intentional torts, and false imprisonment. Amendment VII of the Constitution of the United States of America states (in simplified language): Citizens are entitled to jury trials in civil cases involving more than twenty dollars (Hodge Jr. , Samuel). This is what the tort reform is trying to dissolve. Holding the concept that lawsuits are bad for business, companies are trying to limit the access to civil court and cap the verdict by the jury.
Amendment XIV of the Constitution states (in simplified language): No state can make or enforce any law which will take away the privileges and immunities of citizens; nor deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; not deny any person within its borders the equal protection of its laws (Hodge Jr. , Samuel). Caps on damages are taking way the privileges and immunities of citizens. Negligent torts have elements to institute a reasonable claim. There are duty owed, breach of duty, proximate cause, and damages.
Each of the circumstances in Hot Coffee have all four of these elements. For example, breach of duty is a person failing to fulfill the obligation of the owed duty. In the case GOURLEY v. NEBRASKA METHODIST HEALTH SYSTEM INC OB GYN, medical malpractice was filed against Dr. Knolla. Dr. Knolla told Lisa Gourley that no further action was necessary, and that it was common for pregnancies, after there were serious concerns displayed. Lisa found out only a few days later by a different doctor that she needed an immediate C-section.
This resulted in improper fulfillment of obligation for that situation on Dr. Knolla’s part. In the case Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants, the verdict was determined by significant damages and Stella Liebeck was awarded with punitive and compensatory damage money. One of the reasons for her receiving punitive damage was to ensure that McDonalds would change their coffee temperatures so that this incident would never happen again. The compensatory damages were part of the verdict to ensure that she had enough to pay for all the medical bills and for the pain, suffering, and loss of productive time that she had to endure.
Assumption of the risk is one way Stella Liebeck was mocked in the public eye. Some said that she should have known that the coffee was hot. In her defense, while there is a base knowledge of a cup of coffee being hot, there is not an assumption of her coffee being at temperatures of 180 to 190 degrees. McDonald’s operations manual states that its co? ee must be held at these temperatures. At the time of the Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants case, McDonald’s already had over 700 burn cases in their records. In JAMIE LEIGH JONES v. HALLIBURTON COMPANY case, false imprisonment was a huge factor, among others.
False imprisonment is the unlawful detention of a person against his or her will in a specific area (Hodge Jr. , Samuel). This occurred when Jamie Jones was locked in a shipping container with armed guards. She was not allowed to exit until one of the armed guards felt guilty and allowed her to use his cell phone and then rescued by the Department of Defense. Also in this case, a new amendment was drafted. Senator Al Franken introduced this amendment because he believes victims of sexual assault and discrimination to be in court, and no corporation should be allowed to deny them that right.
In my opinion, this documentary Hot Coffee was thought provoking and insightful. There are many facts and fictions thrown about in the public eye with little consideration for what is true. This documentary has opened my eyes on not only how much of an investigation I have to place on ideas about the law, but about politics as well. Though the law class has been teaching me all of the notions presented in this film, investigating them further has been a huge learning experience.