Stella Liebeck made national headlines in 1992 when she sued McDonald’s after spilling a scalding cup of hot coffee on her lap. The lawsuit had the whole country talking. But what most people do not know is that Liebeck suffered third-degree burns over 16 percent of her body and never fully recovered. And most people do not know that corporations have spent millions of dollars distorting her story to promote tort reform. Liebeck’s case is featured in the documentary Hot Coffee, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting this week from Park City, Utah, where the Sundance Film Festival is in full swing. Today we spend the hour on one of the most provocative films at the festival. It begins by looking at a famous case that, well, most everyone seems to have heard of, but gives it a very different spin. The film is called Hot Coffee.
CHRISTOPHER TIANO: So we had just dropped off my uncle at the airport and went to the nearest McDonald’s that I knew of, and this was it. So, pulled up, and she ordered coffee with her value meal. And I knew she liked cream and sugar in it. There was no place in my 1989 Ford Probe: everything sloped, there were no cup holders in that car.
Did I get cream and sugar also?
McDONALD’S EMPLOYEE: They’re in the bag.
CHRISTOPHER TIANO: It’s in the bag?
McDONALD’S EMPLOYEE: Yeah.
CHRISTOPHER TIANO: Thank you.
I pulled out of here knowing that we — I needed to get organized, if I was going to be eating and driving, and I knew she wanted to put her cream and sugar in the coffee, so pretty much pulled right here. And this is exactly the spot. And handed her her coffee, or had already done that. And so, we just went about organizing. In a short period after that, she started screaming.
STELLA LIEBECK: I wanted to get the top off to put cream and sugar in, so I put it between my knees to steady it with this hand, trying to get the top off, and it just went whoom!
WOMAN ON THE STREET 1: Are you going to show me the burns?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Yeah.
MAN ON THE STREET 1: What?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Yeah. Would that change your mind at all?
MAN ON THE STREET 2: Wow. Yes, if I saw injuries like that, I would definitely take a different view of it, from what I hear from the media.
MAN ON THE STREET 3: Oh, my gosh!
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Hot Coffee. It premiered here at Sundance on Monday. It tells the story of Stella Liebeck. She was 79 years old. She made national headlines when she sued McDonald’s after spilling a scalding cup of hot coffee on her lap. The lawsuit had the whole country talking — and many laughing.
But what most people don’t know is that Stella suffered third-degree burns on 16 percent of her body. And you also may not know that corporations have spent millions of dollars distorting the story to promote tort reform and alter our country’s justice system.
Stella Liebeck passed away in 2004 at the age of 91. We’re joined now by her daughter Judy and her son-in-law Charles Allen.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
JUDY LIEBECK: Thank you.
CHARLES ALLEN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Hot Coffee is the name of this documentary, and it’s based on your mother’s case. Judy, tell us what happened. What day was it? And really explain. We heard your mother in this documentary when she was filmed talking about it. Talk about it yourself.
JUDY LIEBECK: Well, whoever I talk to, they don’t have the right story. So I always ask, "What do you think happened?" What really happened was that my nephew was driving the car, not my mother. They drove into a McDonald’s, got coffee and a meal, drove into the parking lot. There were no cup holders in the car, so my mother steadied the cup between her knees and peeled off the lid. The whole cup collapsed.
The temperature — McDonald’s required that their temperature be held around 187 degrees.
AMY GOODMAN: In a styrofoam cup.
JUDY LIEBECK: In a styrofoam cup. And styrofoam will melt at that temperature. She went to the hospital. We thought, oh, she’s in for observation overnight, no problem. But she was in for eight days. She had third-degree burns. She could not —- you could not touch that area. She had to have a sheet held up. She -—
AMY GOODMAN: The pictures that are shown in the film are gruesome.
JUDY LIEBECK: They’re very gruesome.
AMY GOODMAN: Her thighs.
JUDY LIEBECK: Yes. She had skin grafts. And the skin — when they started talking about skin grafts, that’s when she became concerned about her money, because she had moved from Tucson to Albuquerque. She wanted to buy a little house. And she thought all of her money would go, because Medicare was only going to pay 80 percent, and so she would have to pay 20 percent. And we started thinking, why is McDonald’s insurance not paying for the medical? I have insurance on my home. If someone comes in and breaks an arm or hurts themselves, I expect my insurance to pay for it. That’s what I’m paying insurance for.
So, we wrote a letter to McDonald’s. Chuck and I wrote a letter to McDonald’s, asking them to cover her medical and to check the temperature on the coffee, because it seemed not reasonable that someone would have this kind of an injury from a cup of coffee. They came back with an offer of —- what was at that point $10,000 in medical, they came back with an offer of $800. And we were just appalled. We wrote another letter, hadn’t heard from them, started getting very angry about this whole situation, and contacted a lawyer, searched for a lawyer that had already had a case against McDonald’s. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: A similar case? A case where someone was scalded by hot coffee?
JUDY LIEBECK: A similar case, yes. Yes, six years before. And that —
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the issue of this coffee? I mean, how hot is coffee supposed to be?
JUDY LIEBECK: Well, a normal home brewer should be between 142 and 162. And of course, when you put it into a ceramic cup, the heat is dissipated. A hundred and eighty-seven degrees, you have two to seven seconds before you have a third-degree burn.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you know it was 187 degrees?
JUDY LIEBECK: That was in McDonald’s manual. Coffee was to be held at all of their facilities at that temperature, worldwide. And the reason for that, we believe, is that the higher the temperature on the coffee, the longer the shelf life of the pot of coffee. So it was a business decision to do that. But it causes irreparable damage. At 142 to 162 degrees, you have 25 seconds to get away from a third-degree burn. It’s not going to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Chuck Allen, talk about McDonald’s response and how it progressed.
CHARLES ALLEN: Well, McDonald’s sent the first letter, and saying this is what we’re going to have. And then, the person that we were working through said, "Please call me." And they said, "Get a lawyer."
And so, then McDonald’s decided that they wanted to go to jury trial. And the reason they did that, because New Mexico, up to that point, had never found positively for the plaintiff in a product liability suit, and that is a product liability suit. The decision is, in product liability, is that the product must be used — be able to be used in the way it was intended at the time of sale, or else there must be enough warning that you should do something differently with it. McDonald’s said, "I want to go here, because it’s never found. I want my line drawn in the sand." And there was two court-appointed mediations that they didn’t come to. They wanted jury trial. They said that they wanted to have —- McDonald’s wanted to be at jury to get the proper result, so they would no longer have this issue. This didn’t work out for them. They did go to -—
JUDY LIEBECK: Right. Two days — two days before the court case went to trial, there was a mediation. They sent no one to mediation. And our lawyer had said to us, "If they will settle for some amount of money, you know, $50,000 or something like that, would that be acceptable?" And we said, "That would be wonderful. That’s more than — you know, going to pay for the medical and that sort of thing." And he said, "Well, I would give it to your mother, and I would call it a loss, as far as I’m concerned." McDonald’s was not interested in that. They wanted to go to trial.
AMY GOODMAN: And you went to trial.
CHARLES ALLEN: We went to trial.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you learn about how many times this has happened to people who go to McDonald’s and get coffee?
JUDY LIEBECK: McDonald’s came in with a huge chart with 700 names on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, I’m confused. McDonald’s or your lawyer?
CHARLES ALLEN: No, McDonald’s.
JUDY LIEBECK: Other lawyer, their lawyer.
CHARLES ALLEN: Their.
AMY GOODMAN: Their lawyer, not yours.
CHARLES ALLEN: Not ours.
JUDY LIEBECK: Their lawyer. No, their lawyer.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what — why would they say that they had scalded 700 people?
CHARLES ALLEN: The reason —
JUDY LIEBECK: They felt that it was statistically insignificant. And that’s what they said in court.
CHARLES ALLEN: They sell millions of cups of coffee a day. And if you have 700 burns over a period of 10 years, that, to them, is insignificant. The problem was that our lawyer had made a different —- had tried a separate case. That name was not on the 700. And so, he was able at that point to bring it into court, saying, "Well, where is the Swick phon. case?" It wasn’t there. And so -—
AMY GOODMAN: But even 700 — I mean, you’re talking about more than a person a week is scalded by coffee made by McDonald’s?
JUDY LIEBECK: It just seemed that they were so arrogant and so — it was almost sociopathic, that they didn’t — they didn’t think there was anything wrong with this.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did the jury decide?
CHARLES ALLEN: The jury was, at the last day, told, "You will consider punitive damages." And when they did that, they said, "Well, what should we do for punitive damages, because obviously there isn’t culpability here?" The first thing they decided was that there was a 20 percent problem that Stella actually spilled the coffee on herself.
JUDY LIEBECK: Twenty-five percent. They found that it was 25 percent her fault.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to — OK, and so, how much?
CHARLES ALLEN: And so, that was a twenty — and then they had to reduce that. But then they said, "Punitive damages, we want two or seven days of coffee sales." They chose the two days of coffee sales of only coffee in McDonalds. Those two days happened to be the $2.7 million.
JUDY LIEBECK: The judge was so incensed with what had gone on with McDonald’s that he directed the jury to consider punitive damages.
AMY GOODMAN: In this documentary, one of the jurors was interviewed, in Hot Coffee.
CHARLES ALLEN: Yes.
JUDY LIEBECK: Mm-hmm. Betty Farnham.
AMY GOODMAN: What did she say?
CHARLES ALLEN: Yeah. She was incensed.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, there was a very different reaction all over this country. I want to play again what we played in the billboard. I mean, you had every comic making fun.
CHARLES ALLEN: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Made famous on Seinfeld.
JUDY LIEBECK: Still.
AMY GOODMAN: On Letterman.
JUDY LIEBECK: Still. Toby Keith has a song out right now called the "American Ride." And it says, "Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars."
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.
CRAIG FERGUSON: Every minute they waste on this frivolous lawsuit, they’re not able to waste on other frivolous lawsuits, like, "Ooh, my coffee was too hot!" It’s coffee!
MAN ON THE STREET 3: The woman, she purchased the coffee, and she spilled it on herself. I mean, it wasn’t like the McDonald’s employee took the coffee, threw it on her. Now, that, in itself, then she would have had a lawsuit.
WOMAN ON THE STREET 2: It’s just people just are greedy and want money, and they’ll do anything to get it.
AMY GOODMAN: Just some of the reaction. Final comments for Judy and Chuck Allen, the final decision?
CHARLES ALLEN: In the final decision, 30 days later, we went back into court with McDonald’s asking for the judgment to be thrown out because of a runaway jury. The judge said, "You came into court. You showed what you were. And we were incensed by that, essentially." But he did say, "You thought you saw a light at the end of a tunnel. You did not know it was attached to a train." His words. And then he turned to us and said, "I have the authority to reduce this amount of punitive damage to three times compensatory, and I am exercising that." And so, that’s what he did. So when we walked out of court, the $2.7 million had been reduced to three times compensatory, and then that was the end of the case.
AMY GOODMAN: And how much, in the end, did you get?
CHARLES ALLEN: In the end was the amount, basically. It was an undisclosed amount, but it was in that neighborhood.
AMY GOODMAN: Your mother, a strong woman before this cup of coffee?
JUDY LIEBECK: Oh, the week before this happened, she dug out a palm tree in Tucson, she painted a ceiling. A very, very, very strong woman.
AMY GOODMAN: Afterwards?
JUDY LIEBECK: After this happened, she never got to a point where she could — if her little dachshund dug a hole in her stones in the backyard, she couldn’t take a rake — and it was very difficult for her to even cover that up. So she never regained the quality of life she had before.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to look at several different cases that are highlighted in the film, that is named for the case of your mother, called Hot Coffee, a very different story than one most people know in this country.
JUDY LIEBECK: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being here.
JUDY LIEBECK: Thank you.
CHARLES ALLEN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Judy and Chuck Allen. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the filmmaker, Susan Saladoff, and also by a judge from Mississippi — or he was a judge until — well, it started first when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went after him and poured more than a million dollars into his opponent’s campaign. You’ll hear what happened next. Stay with us.