"Hot Coffee" shows other side of "frivolous" lawsuits

Mon Jun 27, 2011 1:47pm EDT
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By Leigh Jones

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was the case that launched a thousand jokes. The McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit almost 15 years ago came to represent for most people everything that's wrong with the American civil justice system -- a plaintiff with a serious shortage of common sense, a huge windfall in damages and a waste of everyone's time.

Except that it wasn't any of those things -- at least according to an HBO documentary, "Hot Coffee", produced and directed by personal injury attorney Susan Saladoff.

"Hot Coffee", which debuts on Monday, seeks to dispel the notion that U.S. courts are flooded with frivolous lawsuits and greedy lawyers. It focuses on four people who have been left in financial and emotional straits by caps on punitive damages and mandatory arbitration.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79, was sitting in a parked car, trying to put cream and sugar in a cup of McDonald's coffee when it spilled on her, causing third-degree burns. She initially won a $2.9 million award which was later reduced to $480,000. Liebeck eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

Reuters spoke with Saladoff about the documentary, which took two years to make and finance and which got its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Q: How did you make the switch in 2009 from lawyer to filmmaker after practicing for 25 years?

A: "I kept seeing in the media these distortions, not just about the McDonald's case but about the civil justice system. 'Frivolous lawsuits,' ' greedy trial lawyers,' ' jackpot justice.' Those words were used to play on people's emotions. Nobody talks about frivolous defenses. I kept thinking somebody else was going to deal with it. Then finally I said, 'Ok, it's me.'"

Q: So did you just go out and buy a camera?   Continued...