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It was a lawsuit that became a national punchline and point of contention in the fight over so-called “frivolous” lawsuits and tort reform. But as the new documentary Hot Coffee—which premiered June 27 on HBO and will continue to reair in the coming weeks—shows, the case was no laughing matter and continues to impact our justice system. In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was sitting in a parked car at an Albuquerque McDonald’s attempting to add cream and sugar to a coffee, which she had just purchased at the drive-through. The coffee spilled in her lap, scalding her upper thighs and groin. She was left with third-degree burns and required numerous surgeries, including skin grafts. Liebeck initially approached McDonald’s for compensation for her medical expenses. After the company refused, she filed a personal injury lawsuit, seeking damages related only to her medical costs. Although a jury also awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages, the judge reduced the amount, and the case was eventually settled out of court. The case became the butt of jokes—Seinfeld devoted an entire episode to the situation—and was used to further efforts to cap damages in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Hot Coffee, however, asks viewers to consider their perception of what constitutes a frivolous lawsuit. At one point in the documentary, Hot Coffee’s filmmakers question average citizens about their image of Liebeck and the lawsuit in general. Each at first believes Liebeck some blend of reckless and greedy and deems the case unnecessary. Then they are shown the grisly images of Liebeck’s burns. Their impressions turn instantly. The case was often cited amid calls for tort reform, and it was certainly pivotal in the ongoing era of placing caps on monetary awards and other limitations on citizens’ rights to pursue justice and financial compensation in our civil courts. Corporations, their lobbyists and the politicians to whom they donate often call for tort reform as a method of reducing frivolous lawsuits and saving taxpayer money. While the film takes its title from the infamous McDonald’s case, it also hones in on other cases that show the sadly ironic effects of caps on financial damages. Viewers meet Lisa and Mike Gourley, Nebraska parents whose son suffers from cerebral palsy as a result of medical malpractice. Although a jury awarded the family nearly $6 million to help pay for lifelong medical expenses, the Nebraska Legislature limited medical malpractice damages at $1.75 million. The Gourleys were left with little after paying legal fees and other expenses, and now rely on Medicaid. In the end, it’s not the medical institution responsible for the boy’s condition paying for his care, it’s the taxpayers. Hot Coffee depicts a system in which citizens are gradually losing their legal rights and asks viewers to question whether we would view such lawsuits as frivolous if we encountered similar circumstances. If you’ve been injured due to the negligence of another, please contact the Mobile, Alabama, personal injury attorneys at Long & Long, for a free case consultation.

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