February 11, 2012
Documentary focuses on fight against lawsuits, rights
Kenny Kemp

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Stella Liebeck is the woman who spilled hot coffee on her lap as she drove out of a McDonald's parking lot and later sued the company for roughly $20 million -- or $200 billion, or something like that.

That could be a typical example of what some people might say about the infamous mid-'90s lawsuit that elevated Liebeck, a frail 81-year-old, to the status of poster grandma for money-grubbers looking to take advantage of the legal system, Susan Saladoff, director of the recently released HBO documentary "Hot Coffee," said in a Gazette interview last week.

But most people are not aware that the scalding liquid Liebeck spilled on her sweatpants seared her skin and covered her legs in blackened third-degree burns reminiscent of Vietnam War napalm wounds.

And those same folks probably aren't aware that the burns hospitalized Liebeck for months; that she required several painful skin grafts, and that she never fully recovered from her injuries.

Still, others do not know that Liebeck was sitting in the passenger seat of the car when she spilled the coffee, and that her nephew, the driver, had pulled into a parking space in the restaurant's lot to organize the bags of food they had just bought.

Liebeck asked McDonald's to simply cover her medical expenses, and to make sure the coffee was not brewed so hot. The company offered $800 and eventually reduced the brewing temperature from 180 degrees to 170 degrees.

When she sued in 1995, a jury awarded her $2.7 million in damages, which a judge later reduced to about $640,000, according to Saladoff's documentary. 

Saladoff visited Charleston last week as a guest speaker at the West Virginia Association of Justice Mid-Winter Convention and Seminar. She also hosted a screening of "Hot Coffee" at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Kanawha Boulevard.

The documentary, which Saladoff has been promoting around the country, seeks to expose the little-known methods corporations and lobbying groups use to discredit "frivolous lawsuits," manipulate judicial elections, influence legislation to cap damage awards on medical malpractice cases and surreptitiously deny consumers and corporate employees their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.

After the coffee spill case went public, McDonald's mounted a massive public relations campaign against Liebeck. Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld poked fun at her. Newspapers and TV stations largely bought into the case as frivolous, and the American public came away with the idea that Liebeck was a greedy monster, according to the film.

During the Gazette interview, Saladoff quickly scrambled to find an email sent to her by an advocacy group supposedly fronted by corporations, which listed this year's "Stella Award" winners.

"They're so insulting because they're made up after Stella Liebeck," Saladoff said. "They're the most ridiculous lawsuits in the country every year, and they're not even real cases."

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