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McDonald's 'Hot Coffee' Movie to Debut at Sundance

By Jason Beahm | Last updated on

"Plasma gettin bigger, Jesus gettin smaller.
Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars." - Toby Keith, American Ride

Toby Keith mocked it, Seinfeld parodied it. It's the McDonald's coffee case, something that has become synonymous with the idea of a court system filled with frivolous lawsuits and runaway juries.

Nevermind that of all the possible examples of a frivolous lawsuit, the McDonald's case is probably one of the least frivolous imaginable. For example, few people are aware that the coffee in question was not just *hot*, it was scalding and capable of nearly instantaneously destroying skin, flesh and muscle.

A documentary called "Hot Coffee" is set to highlight the actual details of the McDonald's incident involving Stella Liebeck, an Albuquerque woman who was 79 at the time of the accident. Liebeck spilled scalding hot coffee on herself after purchasing it from the drive through. The film takes a closer look at what caused the case to become such a media sensation and who funded the effort to manipulate and spin the case.

Here are a few facts that most people don't know about the case:

  • Stella Liebeck was the passenger in the vehicle, not the driver.
  • Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. Liebeck required extensive skin grafting as a result of the burns.
  • McDonalds' actively required that its coffee be held at 185 degrees--a burn hazard exists at 140 degrees or above. At the temperature at which the coffee was poured into the cups, the coffee was extremely dangerous, but the quality assurance manager testified that despite the fact that burns would occur, McDonald's had no intention of reducing the "holding temperature" of its coffee.
  • There were more than more 700 claims of people burned by McDonald's coffee between 1982 and 1992.
  • Liebeck, initially offered to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds declined.
  • The jury later awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in putative damages, but a judge reduced it to $480,000. However, McDonalds planned to appeal the case, and in order to avoid years of drawn out appeals, persuaded Liebeck to enter into a secret settlement.

"Hot Coffee" is set to be released at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary by Susan Saladoff is meant to demonstrate that many long-held beliefs about the American civil justice system have been manipulated by corporate America. The documentary takes a closer look at the infamous February 1992 McDonald's coffee case and asks viewers to rethink whether the popular culture version of the case mirrors the reality of the case.

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