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.


  1. Imagining that Saladoff, or any film maker, journalist or even judge, can be objective is delusional thinking. Imagining that interviewing a McDonald's representative on film would contribute to it being a "balanced" film is also delusional — whatever the hell "balanced" might mean. These days, the media bends over backwards to be "balanced" by giving roughly equal voice to opposing viewpoints, but that's complete nonsense. Some viewpoints are worthless, some are truly idiotic and some are only held by a tiny minority fringe. To give them equal time in the name of balance is crazy.

    Everybody has a subjective viewpoint on everything.

    I've read the writing on this site about this case. Yet other than the claim above that the plaintiff's lawyers worked to "conceal Liebeck's own contributory negligence", I have not seen any statement to support that idea. Just exactly what is it she is claimed to have done to have contributed?

    I have also not read anything that gives any support to the idea that the coffee she was served was cooler than industry average. Did the franchise in question take the temperature of its coffee over the days before and after the spill to establish the actual temperature they were serving their coffee at? If not, it seems unlikely there is any evidence to support such a claim other than conjecture.

    It seems like tacit admission of guilt by the restaurant industry that since that time, coffee is for the most part served in cups that are better designed to prevent burns and include warnings about the danger of hot liquids contained. Moreover, McDonald's own witnesses essentially admitted guilt.

    I don't find the $2+ million original punitive award out of line, now that I've read here on your site that it was essentially only 2 days coffee revenue for McDonald's. Seems like a semi-reasonable way to arrive at a punitive damage.

    I have not seen the movie, and in fact, came to this site to read your articles without a strong leaning in favor of either the plaintiff or defendant in the case. Your own writing has me fairly convinced McDonald's was significantly at fault.

    Your critique of the movie seems to be wishing for some utopia where people are perfectly objective and informed. I strongly believe there exists, and I have personally seen significant amounts of, evidence that corporations do, in fact, engage in campaigns to discredit lawsuits and to paint plaintiffs as after "jackpot justice."

    Likewise, I've seen credible evidence supporting the need for tort reform in some cases.

    However, in the end, I prefer to err on the side of the small guy, the plaintiffs, the non-corporations.

    Even with a corporation full of "good" people, the end goal is profit and the corporate culture will always be taking the least expensive way to do something — even if that means breaking laws and hurting people. It's easier to pay a $1 million fine for polluting ground water than $15 million to prevent it from ever happening — especially if ever getting caught is calculated risk. So with McDonald's — people were getting burned and they knew it! But the number was small enough compared to the number of cups of coffee they sold that they couldn't be "bothered" (read "expensed") to do anything about it. Hence the need for large punitive damages — and even better, courts which make parties pay up sooner rather than later. I refer you to the Exxon Valdez case for a perfect example to the contrary.

    • All these comments, both yea and nay, from people who haven’t troubled themselves to view the film. I recall such days when ‘opinion’ was preceded by ‘informed’.

  2. You haven't seen the movie, and you're already saying it's biased?

    That's stupidity on an epic scale.

  3. Thank you for your comments. We drafted this piece to present some background information on the filmmaker – not to "review" the contents of the film itself. Given her background, it is not a stretch to suggest that Saladoff has a clear position in this saga. Whether that position comes out in the film, we can't be certain until we see it. However, Saladoff herself admits that she didn't try too hard to include counter-positions because we have "already heard the other side." It is difficult to make an objective piece while admitting to leaving out information from your opponents. We don't have to see the film to know that.

    • Within your critique of Saladoff’s film is THE reason the jury awarded in favor of the plaintiff; McDonald’s was negligent. Comparing a ratio of 700 to “billions” is a false construct and not the point of negligence.

      Further, the actual theme of Saladoff’s film is about the way corporations have rigged everything, from congress, the presidency and now as she shows, the judiciary. Whether or ot you agree with torts or not, the theme is the corporate takeover, not whether or not Saladoff has a stake in the tort debate – or not. Even if she did, and I *have* seen her film and it was fairly clear she did or does — as I said, what she exposes, from binding arbitration to cap limits is nothing new to anyone who pays attention.

      That you fail to see the true theme and purpose of the film is second only to your fumbling at character assassination, toward what end, one can only surmise, is not unlike the motives of “freemen” like Halliburton. “Halliburton,” after all, is a “person,” riiiiiight…?

  4. Mike Bryant says:

    Everyone doesn't know the story, that's why the movie is important to see. So if this isn't a review, it's just a bias attack to offset what? HBO picked it up, so let's see what the public thinks when they see the actual pictures of her burn and get told the whole story.

  5. Don't you have a bias against the filmaker based on who you represent?

  6. barcodewill says:

    Nick Farr, your innuendos and assertions to discredit Ms. Saladoff are a clear indictment of your bias.

    First, every review and in the Sundance literature I have read about the movie have Ms. Saladoff's bio as a public interest attorney for over 25 years. She does not hide the fact that she takes on cases about social injustice or abuses of Americans by corporations.

    But lets state more facts about the Stella Liebeck case and what Ms. Saladoff did in exposing the real facts in "Hot Coffee" which should be praised as a social service to the American public who had been misinformed about the details of what happened to Stella Liebeck in 1992. She was a victim of McDonalds corporation's product and she was a victim of McDonalds' campaign to discredit and belittle her.

    Mr. Farr you may be on the side of McDonald's and on the side of the media campaign to call her case a frivolous law suit…there is no need to find some jerk who wants to blame the victim—the legal profession is over populated with money hungry scum who will do anything, even lose the case but always admit “no wrong doing”.

    But lets go back to the Facts: A vascular surgeon determined that Liebeck suffered full thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body, including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she underwent skin grafting. Liebeck, who also underwent debridement treatments, sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds refused.

    The jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. This amount was reduced to $160,000 because the jury found Liebeck 20 percent at fault in the spill. The jury also awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which equals about two days of McDonalds' coffee sales profits.
    Facts about the coffee served to Stella Liebeck: During the legal proceedings discovery, McDonalds produced documents showing more than 700 claims by people burned by its coffee between 1982 and 1992. Some claims involved third-degree burns substantially similar to Liebecks. This history documented McDonalds' knowledge about the extent and nature of this hazard.
    McDonalds also said during discovery that, based on a consultants advice, it held its coffee at between 180 and 190 degrees fahrenheit to maintain optimum taste. He admitted that he had not evaluated the safety ramifications at this temperature. Other establishments sell coffee at substantially lower temperatures, and coffee served at home is generally 135 to 140 degrees.
    Saladoff is on the right side of this issue and the facts support her position, if you don’t like it and feel you need more balance look at what the judge ruled in this matter…”the judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful”.

    Shame on you, Nick Farr.

  7. We appreciate the comments and the continued dialogue regading this matter. We have never tried to hide our opinions or cover-up the facts in discussing Ms. Saladoff's film. In fact, each piece of evidence mentioned in your response can be found in our FAQ file, published the following day, along with the original sources.

    It has never been our intention to relitigate the Liebeck case. We scheduled an interview with Ms. Saladoff to discuss our concerns with Hot Coffee, but she cancelled. Even without the interview, our aim has always been to reveal that the documentary can not be objective given the history of its maker. After all, Ms. Saladoff recently stated in the current issue of the ABA Journal, "The whole point of my making the film was that I had something to say about the civil justice system, and I wanted to get my message out to as many people as possible." Ms. Saladoff just wanted to say something about the civil justice system. We felt an obligation to reveal the motivations behind the film-maker.

    • Bertha Yellowfinch says:

      You what? Nick Farr “felt an OBLIGATION” to do what? Does that mean, Mr. Farr that you are being paid to besmirch the individuals involved in the Hot Coffee case? Is that your “obligation”?

      Just for your info, there have been MORE than 700 burn cases from McDonalds hot coffee, even though 700 were presented to the court by McDonalds. Those burns are nothing to laugh at or besmirch, Mr. “Obligation”.

      As for supposed “tort reform”, that dog doesn’t hunt. What requires reform are the unbridled liberties taken every single day with human dignity, human safety and human lives by corporate entities.

      Did you get that, Mr. Obligation, or do I need to repeat it for you? You be sure and let me know. I’d hate to think you didn’t earn your “obligation”.

      By the way, exactly how much are you being paid for that “obligation”? I’m very interested in that “pesky little detail” of yours.

  8. I don't believe you have a firm grasp on what being objective actually means. You also rely on an argument about motivations rather than the actual objectivity of the documentarian. Even worse you fail to note the priors, the perception that exists in the public prior to seeing this film.

    Thus I don't feel your argument has much merit and bases itself primarily on a logical fallacy that only has rhetorical value.

  9. Reading the comments on here, and then the paucity of comments on your follow-up posts about Stella Liebeck and the Hot Coffee documentary leads me to believe that the criticisms leveled here are the result of a concerted effort to drown out criticism of the documentary.

    I wonder who’s behind it? Saladoff? Or ATLA?

  10. James Rincon says:

    Anonymous makes a good point that intent is not the same as objectivity. Someone can objectively present facts that objectively prove a point. That being the case, a person who intends to make the point that those facts objectively present may present them with the specific intent of making that point.

  11. youdontknowyourself youdontknowyourself says:

    Who’s behind it? People who actually care about justice for the individual.

    So the argument here is a standard was set somewhere therefore the suit wasn’t meretricious? McDonald’s repeatedly had complaints about severe burns, and could reasonably expect someone to be burned again. But I guess if it’s a low-probability event and there’s some standard set, then that means they’re off the hook! ::rolls eyes::

    • Just a quick question. Would the trial lawyers be happy with the set fee for their services or would they rather prefer 50%of 10 millions? BTW what is the profession of Susan Saladoff?

  12. Your documentary was so informative and full of information that many had no idea about. Thank you for giving us the real story. It is so hard for me to believe that so many people can’t see what is really happening when corporations really own our country. It is all about greed and hurting the average person. Each state needs to make better sense of their tort rules. Some independent arbitrators are about justice but if they are in bed with corporations in any way, these rules need to be changed.

  13. David Johnson says:

    Saladoff is a culture warrior and she produced nothing more than an infomercial for her industry..ambulance chasing. Oh, I am sure that she is enjoying the cocktail parties of liberal limousine elites and enjoying her very well-paid legal life. Sprinkle in some “justice”, anti Bush/Rove Bogeyman rhetoric, and a fair amount of anti big business greedy profit monger-ism and Voila! Another Progressive Liberal agenda driven documentary about how every American can be heroic if they sue a business for the little guy! The Nazis taught the Progressives well about how to utilize sob story docs to justify their insane ideology.

  14. Aaaand David fulfills Godwin’s Law with the ever-loved Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy (look it up). David – if you want your argument to hold any water stop comparing the suing of a corporation to the genocide of millions of people. It’s disrespectful and ridiculous.

  15. The problem is not with the high compensations at “frivolous litigation” Mrs.Saladoff is fighting with an obvious conflict of interests. Our American problem is with the lack of personal responsibility. McDonalds was fined for hot coffee. Was ever the manager responsible for not fixing the numerous claims about hot coffee made to pay for this? A doctor is proved guilty for a malpractice act. Is the judge asking for the suspension of his license to practice? A manager at BP made a bad decision and six people died on the blown up rig, besides the damage to the environment. Was he arrested? None of the above. Americans ceased to carry personal responsibility and we don’t need lawyers to make money on people tragedies to right the wrongs.

    • “A doctor is proved guilty for a malpractice act. Is the judge asking for the suspension of his license to practice?”

      No, it’s worse than that. The temperature at which McDonald’s served the coffee, is the temperature at which coffee is SUPPOSED TO BE SERVED.

      Compare to a doctor, it more like a doctor doing everything by the book, perfectly, and the patient dies anyway. The doctor is sued, the doctor demonstrates the practice was reasonable standard of care, and loses anyway because of the bad outcome.

      “Proven” malpractice? This is more like saying the sky is green and not blue, because a jury said so. It’s the court’s decision, it’s legal, but it’s not right.

  16. Just wanted to say, watched the documentary and it was clearly biased. There was no attempt to show the other side, and therefore this movie amounted to Hollywood propaganda.

    The information presented in the documentary was fascinating, but without a balanced viewpoint I found it hard to take it seriously. How unfortunate for a movie that wants to be taken seriously.

  17. Great movie i sign all my contracts
    underduress – whats funny is they never
    check to see if i signed my name !!!

  18. your signature is the most valuable you own, dont give it away

  19. Well I just watched the movie and it was certainly not balanced and had a clear intent Plaintiffs and their lawyers and sympathizers = good; everyone else = bad. That’s the kind of advocacy film making HBO loves to show. Its a shame I enjoy learning about an issue through narrative and real-life cases but I prefer a balanced view and the chance to make up my own mind.

  20. rcandrews says:

    Regardless of this being bias or not the simple fact is this; before the lawyers got involved all the woman wanted was the difference in what her Medicare/Medicaid, which ever was going to pay for her injuries.

    Pretty sure that wasn’t $600,000.00

    One other point having worked in a commercial kitchen environment all of my life I find it awfully suspect that 140 degree coffee produced such burns through sweat pants when 350 degree grease never produce such burns through a chef jacket.

  21. harrylime says:

    Not surprisingly, the film is a completely slanted piece of propaganda. I actually do believe that the idea we need more tort reform is a myth propagated by big business and insurance companies. However, Stella Liebeck spilled the coffee on itself. She presumably knew she was riding in a vehicle without cupholders. If she hadn’t spilled the coffee, she would have never complained about the coffee being too hot. Next.

  22. That woman is a freaking idiot. She went on the steven colbert show trying to claim frivolous lawsuits exist – then steven said something that made her admit that yes, there are frivolous lawsuits.

    She’s just trying to pander to lawyers to get them more money or something – anyone who doesnt believe frivolous lawsuits are real is a complete moron

    • It’s really quite sad that so many people have posted comments that suggest that Susan Saladoff’s motives in making the movie are tainted by her being a lawyer.

      First, as has been stated a few times in other postings, NO ONE is neutral. Whatever program or movie you see, someone has decided to tell a story. They get to pick how they are going to tell that story. If you’re smart, you go in knowing that you are being told a story from the story teller’s point of view and you definitely question what you are being told and you weigh it against what you know and what you can test.

      ALL OF US had ALREADY HEARD the McDonald’s coffee story. We thought we knew all about it. Some greedy woman decided to sue McDonald’s for millions of dollars when she was stupid enough to spill hot coffee on herself while driving a car.

      WHO WAS TELLING US THAT STORY????? Why is it that Nick Farr, and the others who have posted demeaning and insulting comments about Susan Saladoff, did not ask themselves that question? Why is it that these folks did not ask themselves what the motivation was for the people who decided to circulate that total distortation of Stella Leibeck’s case?

      So the scrutiny and suspicion has instead been reserved for the person who steps up to the plate after hearing this distorted version of reality for years, to try to set the records straight???

      Frankly, I don’t think it should matter who showed me the pictures of the actual burns suffered by Stella Liebeck. AS SOON AS ANY NORMAL PERSON SEES THOSE PHOTOS, you have just got to know that you have been manipulated and lied to about this case. No one looking at those photographs can truly come away believing that this lawsuit can possibly be “frivolous”. There may be “frivolous” lawsuits, but this sure isn’t one of them! For the dolts who posted messages, somehow suggesting that this woman deliberately did this to herself, all I can say is “you’ve GOT to be kidding”.

      And we got so much else wrong, as well, about this case. Stella wasn’t driving so she wasn’t being careless. I mean, how many of us have ordered a coffee from somewhere and drank it in the car. How in the name of heaven is that careless? And have you ever spilled anything? Obviously you have. This doesn’t make you careless or negligent. Negligent means you weren’t taking REASONABLE care, because accidents happen all the time when you are trying to be careful. Have you ever walked carefully on an icy surface? Bet you fell at least once anyway. It doesn’t mean you were negligent.

      In law, negligence is established when a party fails to take proper care when an injury is foreseeable. Responsible neighbors don’t leave equipment lying around which kids might use and injure themselves. Responsible companies post a sign when they have washed the floor in their establishment to warn you to be careful when you walk on a wet floor, or to watch your step where the floor is uneven and someone may trip. The first thing a court will look at is whether the injury is foreseeable, before establishing negligence.

      It certainly is no stretch to understand that: (a) when you have drive throughs, people will order coffee to drink in the car; (b) despite best efforts, some people are going to spill that coffee; (c) coffee kept at temperatures of 180 to 190 degrees will burn skin and cause third or even fourth degree burns. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to come to conclude that McDonald’s should have foreseen that this behavior of theirs might cause serious injuries. You have to be even LESS of a rocket scientist when you learn that McDonald’s was ALREADY AWARE OF AT LEAST 700 other instances where this very thing had happened.

      If your neighbor left his car keys in the car once and a young child crawled into the driver’s seat and accidentally engaged the engine, causing the car to crash and injure the child, you might say that anyone might make such a mistake. It could happen to anyone. But if your neighbor did it 700 more times without learning a lesson and addressing the problem, you’d have to conclude that your neighbor was a complete and utter idiot or that your neighbor couldnt care less about the danger he was creating.

      If you want to ask questions about Susan Saladoff’s information, then do so. But don’t be ridiculous in using her motivation to get the facts about this case and the removal of the right of Americans to access justice, as a basis for abusing her or discounting the information in the movie.

      If you can look at the injuries suffered by Stella Liebeck and nonetheless stick with the notion that she was a gold digger, out to make tons of money, then you are the one that is clearly not neutral in clinging to such an illogical and unsubstantiated conclusion.

      If you are normal, and look at those injuries with shock and outrage at the lies you have been fed about this case, then you’ve got to ask yourself WHO told you those lies and WHAT WAS THEIR MOTIVATION.

  23. The Liebeck case is only the preface for the film’s message. As I recall there is a strong argument made that our constitutional rights to a day in court are being distorted by well-orchestrated campaigns to discredit the injured, purchase seats for sympathetic judges and legislators and generally to change the law to favor the powerful.

    The full thrust of the film is the tilting effect large amounts of money have on the so-called “level playing field” that American Justice is supposed to represent. The fact that the film was made by a lawyer only adds to the messages credibility.

    The intelligent thing to do is ask not why she made the film but are her arguments valid. Is the Chamber of Commerce acting to undermine our constitutional rights as consumers and citizens? Are judge’s seats being won for “corporate friendly judges” in elections where large sums of money are spent to attack opponents of “corporate-rights”? Are the laws that protect citizens from corporate negligence being eroded by organizations favoring “Tort Reform”? Is “Tort Reform” really a code word for a process that will actually keep victims of corporate negligence from getting a fair hearing and fair treatment under the law?

    If you want a truly “balanced” view. Look into the answers to the questions that the film brings up. Not into the filmmaker’s motives.

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  26. This is a very meta article – almost exactly the kind of rhetoric that the movie discusses at length. Misinformation and manipulative information, dressed as an objective view on the issue.

    How can attorneys, of all people, state numerous statements as fact, only to disclose that you haven’t actually seen the film? If you had actually watched it, you would know that many of the statements in this article are 100% false. And seeing as this is a blog, there’s absolutely nothing to have stopped you from making corrections after the movie’s release.

    This article is either pure propaganda or completely unbecoming of anyone professing to be in the legal profession.

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