Who has not heard about the McDonald’s Coffee case? As a joke? As an example of a frivolous lawsuit? Or as an example of how trial lawyers are attacking corporate America and undermining our economy? All this and more was said to ridicule the jury’s verdict in that case, but how many comedians, TV commentators and tort reformers ever stopped to answer the simple question – how hot was it? On June 27, 2011, at 9:00 pm, HBO aired Hot Coffee, a documentary that answers this question and more.
The coffee in the McDonald’s case was too hot to drink because that’s how McDonald’s served it, as a matter of corporate policy. While nearly all other restaurants, including fast-food restaurants, served their coffee at 160°, McDonald’s served its coffee at 180 to 190°. Drink it that hot and it will scald your mouth and throat, and McDonald’s not only knew it, but also testified at trial that it did not intend to change its policies or procedures, and said there were more serious dangers in restaurants.
A judge assigned to mediate the case before trial advised McDonald’s to settle for $225,000. McDonald’s refused, saying that it wanted a jury to decide the issue. During the trial, the jury learned about McDonald’s policies that persisted in the face of ongoing customer claims for burns from McDonald’s too-hot-to-drink coffee, and about McDonald’s settlement of those claims. The jury gave McDonald’s their verdict, just not the one McDonald’s wanted.
McDonald’s spends a lot of money on advertising on TV networks and newspapers, and that money pays the salaries of reporters, editors, producers, network CEO’s, TV commentators and personalities, and late-night comedians and talk show hosts. When McDonald’s got the verdict, its spin doctors went to work. McDonald’s is a Hap-Hap-Happy place. Not a place where an accidental coffee spill will give your or your grandmother second and third degree burns and leave you scarred for the rest of your life.
In Hot Coffee, the story is told with the facts that were important to the jury in handing down a verdict for $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages to punish McDonald’s for its persistent corporate disregard in the face of the second and third degree burns it was inflicting on its customers. This documentary comes 17 years after the verdict was handed down by the jury in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That it has taken so many years for this story to be told bears truth to Mark Twain’s statement – "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on."