Spill the Beans: The Truth Behind Susan Saladoff’s "Hot Coffee" Documentary

Everyone knows the tale of the New Mexico jury that awarded an octogenarian Plaintiff nearly $3 million after she spilled a cup of McDonald’s coffee into her lap at the drive through. In 1994, that verdict became the talk of the nation and the poster child for tort reform. Since that time, the case has become the legal community’s most infamous urban legend. However, most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize Plaintiff Stella Liebeck’s name; fewer realize that the large award of damages was ultimately reduced to approximately $800,000 by the trial court. The story of the hot coffee case – much like a childhood game of “telephone” – has been told and re-told so many times that the line between truth and myth has become indistinguishable.

Tonight, at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Susan Saladoff premieres her new film, Hot Coffee, a documentary on the Liebeck case and the status of America’s civil justice system. But who is Susan Saladoff, and is her documentary an objective telling of legal history?

We think it’s important for filmgoers and, perhaps most importantly, film critics writing about the film, to be fully aware of the background of the filmmaker behind this effort. Saladoff is not the typical documentary filmmaker. She spent 25 years representing plaintiffs in personal injury, medical malpractice, and products liability actions. Long before anyone heard the name “Stella Liebeck,” Saladoff served as a member and officer of many trial lawyer groups. Since 1983, she has been an active member (and past President) of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (“TLPJ“) – an organization that has launched a campaign “designed to expose, challenge, and defeat the assault now taking place on the right to a day in court.” According to the TLPJ’s official website, the group fights against those who seek to close “courthouse doors so victims can’t hold the powerful accountable.” In addition, Saladoff was active in the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (which has since changed its name to the American Association for Justice), serving as the Co-Chair for the Constitutional Litigation Committee. Much like the Hot Coffee trailer, AAJ suggests that oil and pharmaceutical companies spent millions to manufacture a purported myth that lawsuits are “out of control” and that the Liebeck case is the proof of that fact.

We’re thinking that this might not be the most objective documentary on the subject.

Given her background, Saladoff has reason to fight against the public perception of the Liebeck case as an example of the civil justice system run amok. In fact, she recently told IndieWIRE that “unbiased” juries are now elusive because prospective jurors believe that “injured people [are] trying to cash-in on so-called ‘jackpot justice,'” a view prompted by the Liebeck case. With Hot Coffee, she also seeks to warn that citizens “are giving up their Constitutional rights every day without even knowing it.” These are not the views of an objective filmmaker.

The documentary’s cast list is composed of prominent plaintiff’s attorneys, law professors, and public officials. We doubt that Kenneth Wagner, counsel for Liebeck herself, will concede that any coffee served over 140 degrees could result in third-degree burns similar to those sustained by his client. It is unlikely that Alex Winslow, executive director of a consumer advocacy organization, will reference the National Coffee Association’s statement that McDonald’s coffee conformed to industry standards. (“Scalding Coffee Debate: When Does Java Become Lava?,” The Palm Beach Post, September 7, 1994, available at 1994 WLNR 1466981 (originally printed in The Wall Street Journal). We suspect that no interviewee will quote coffee connoisseur and Costa Rica coffee plantation owner William McAlpin’s opinion that coffee is best served at 175 degrees. (Id.). Finally, we do not expect Joanne Doroshow, founder and executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy, to mention the numerous other courts placing legal responsibility on the spiller rather than the maker of the coffee.

To her credit, Saladoff did interview Victor Schwartz, co-author of the case book, Cases and Materials on Torts, and general counsel to the American Tort Reform Association. However, if the film features other tort reform advocates, she did not list them on her website. In a recent interview with Filmmaker, Saladoff claimed that her requests to interview Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich were declined. Interestingly, she made no mention of any attempts to interview McDonald’s representatives. Apparently, that type of balance wasn’t a huge priority since, according to Saladoff, we’ve “already heard the other side” of the story.

We are left with only one question – why? If Saladoff truly desired to debunk the purported myths of the Liebeck case, why limit that exploration to those who share her views and background? Even if opposing viewpoints damage her position, they at least give the audience the opportunity to decide for themselves what is myth and what is fact. As friend of the blog and Overlawyered contributor Ted Frank once noted, the Plaintiffs’ bar has been forced to spin certain facts to portray Liebeck’s case as meritorious. They consciously avoid the fact that the temperature of Liebeck’s coffee was within industry standards and, in fact, perfectly normal. It was actually at a lower temperature than many coffees enjoyed by consumers today. As Frank correctly observes, Plaintiffs’ lawyers are forced to rely on obscure and misleading data to conceal Liebeck’s own contributory negligence. In so doing, they invoke 700 complaints made about coffee temperature, but those 700 complaints come from a total of billions of cups sold.

But who wants to watch a film with such pesky little details?

Apparently, not Ms. Saladoff.

Full Disclosure: We’ve not yet seen the film, although we requested an advance screener from both Saladoff and her publicity agent. Further, we asked for an interview with Saladoff, and although that request was initially granted and the interview scheduled, Saladoff canceled the interview several days before it was to occur and has not responded to subsequent queries.

For additional reading, check out this online biography of Ms. Saladoff from her old law firm.

UPDATE: Read our Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case FAQ.