Thoughts on “Hot Coffee” Director Susan Saladoff’s Appearance on “The Colbert Report”

Last night, plaintiff’s attorney and “Hot Coffee” documentary filmmaker Susan Saladoff appeared as the guest on “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central.  You might recall that Saladoff’s Hot Coffee documentary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January.  Thereafter, it premiered on HBO in June.  Why the media blitz in late October? Well, Saladoff is now promoting the November 1 DVD release of her documentary.  This is big news.  For just $29.95, you can own a copy of the film complete with extra footage. Just in time for the holidays!

You can find the clip of her appearance on the Colbert Nation website here.

The majority of the interview was a simple rehashing of Saladoff’s standard mantra – tort reform is bad, frivolous lawsuits are uncommon, and corporations are brainwashing us to think otherwise. Obviously, we don’t share Saladoff’s point of view, but her message is one she is free to make. She certainly didn’t dedicate much time to discussing the Liebeck case itself – the litigation from which her film takes its name.  When asked by host Stephen Colbert about the frivolous nature of Liebeck’s lawsuit, Saladoff responded with her all too familiar talking points:  1)  Liebeck’s injuries were real; 2) McDonald’s only offered $800 to settle the case; and 3) McDonald’s knew its coffee was capable of causing burns and continued to serve it nonetheless.  That’s all true, of course.  Liebeck did sustain third-degree burns.  McDonald’s did initially offer $800 to settle the case, presumably believing it could not be held liable for damages caused by an individual drinking a hot beverage.  The testimony in the case indicates that McDonald’s did know that hot coffee could cause burns. But even if we take those three points as a given, so what?

As we’ve often asked on this site, why should McDonald’s be held liable for damages caused by a beverage which by its nature is meant to be served hot?  When presented with that question, Saladoff claimed that McDonald’s knew its coffee could not be consumed at the temperature at which it was served.  Seriously?  It seems absurd to think that a business would serve a product it knew no one could consume.  We suppose someone forgot to tell the billion customers who purchased – and presumably drank – McDonald’s coffee in the decade prior to Liebeck’s accident.  Further, Saladoff alleged that McDonald’s coffee was capable of causing third-degree burns in as little as three seconds.  Three seconds?  Really?  If true, one would expect far more burn complaints considering the billions of cups of coffee sold.  Why not mention the fact that Liebeck sat in the coffee for 90 seconds?  Why not mention that Liebeck’s clothing actually held the coffee closer to her skin?  Why not mention that Liebeck could have suffered the same extent of burns had the coffee been served at a temperature as low as 130 degrees?  Apparently, these facts aren’t necessary components of the “real story.”

Saladoff also mentioned that Liebeck’s settlement agreement with McDonald’s included a gag order.  As we’ve noted before, Saladoff was a plaintiff’s personal injury attorney for 20 years prior to her turn as a filmmaker.  We suspect she’s previously encountered confidentiality provisions in settlement agreements, which are included for all sorts of legitimate reasons.

We here at Abnormal Use continue to question Saladoff’s inclusion of the Liebeck case in her anti-tort reform documentary.  We also wonder if the DVD “extras” she mentioned actually contain new information about the Liebeck case or if they are comprised of more out of context anti-tort reform talking points. If you pick up a copy on November 1, be certain to let us know.


  1. So Nick, did you actually watch the documentary?

  2. Joe,

    I have seen the documentary on several occassions. You can read my review of “Hot Coffee” from June here.

  3. Nick,
    There are frivolous lawsuits of course, though I disagree with the notion that the Liebeck case was one of them. Coffee was served (through a drive-in window) as hot as the car’s radiator water, 3rd degree burns resulted from a spill and the company refused to pay reasonable med & lost wage reimbursement. Her only recourse was our very effective system of civil justice. To “reform” certainly helps Corp bottom line but at the expense any person who is injured by the misconduct or negligence of powerful corporations. And that price is too high. As to frivolous actions, we have lawyers, courts and juries to sort it out. BTW: Corporations also indulge in silly cases: [from AAJ-“Do as I say, not as I sue”] Here’s some hypocracy – The Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose job is to bring about tort reform – to protect corporations from “frivolous” claims — who have no prob filing claims themselves.
    Caterpillar, one of ILR’s board members, sued Disney for use of bulldozers in George of the Jungle 2 as depicting bulldozers as “overly villainous”. FedEx, another ILR board member, took a “stand for justice” by suing a man for making a chair out of FedEx boxes. And Johnson & Johnson used courts against the Red Cross. Do they have the right to sue? Of course. Hypocritical – you betcha!

    Lastly, it just seems to me that suggesting that DVD sales was Saladoff’s motive for making the documentary is no more accurate than to say your point of view is inspired by a business need to pander on behalf of corporate greed. I don’t believe either is true.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent on your blog.

  4. I think, by denigrating the main use of the Liebeck case in popular culture, that you are missing the point of both its use in the documentary and in political discourse. For just the very reasons you cite (it was, duh, coffee–nothing to sue over), that case has a special power. For those of your ilk, it embodies the over-reaching of those out for a free ride, meal ticket, or the like. In short, an abuse or misuse of the court.

    For others, it is an example of how the courts act as a corrective agent against abuse, corruption, and incompetence (especially medical personnel). Without the correction of a good tort case, industry and business may well still be employing 10 year olds to pull the coal carts, attend segregated schools and the like.

    Back to my point…the hot coffee case, suing for being stupid, is the distillation of talking points: until one learns more about it. Point is, the tort in that case worked. McDonald’s altered its practice (which had hurt 900 others to varying, shall I say it, degrees) to the point that such “accidents” (one of McDonald’s arguments–echoed here–was that with such a high number of servings that the accident rate was statistically insignificant: until it happens to you or to one you love) have been reduced.

    What you fail to point out is that “tort reform” does nothing to mitigate such suits. Caps on damages, reduced statutes of limitations, affidavits of merit, pre-suit notices, witness requirements, etc., these work to bias a case toward the defense.

    “Tort reform,” rather, provides defense with a ready stable of tactics and defences which to attack a case, shielding their clients from a frontal assault. It is defensive jujitsu.

    So, with that, I wonder why, as defense counsel, you should complain so much… Nothing could be better for business that more examples of suing for being stupid.

  5. Nick,
    I doubt many people on either side of the tort reform issue would suggest that McDonald’s should be held liable for damages simply because they served hot coffee. The question presented to the jury in that case was more complicated than that. If McDonald’s had been serving hot coffee at 130 degrees I suspect they never would have been found liable by the jury, even given the fact that burns can still be cause by coffee at 130 degrees. Of course, you’re entitled to your opinion of the evidence presented in that case, but the jury saw it differently. Our system allows trial judges and appeals courts to set aside unreasonable jury verdicts. And if McDonald’s really doesn’t like the jury trial system in this country they can always lobby for a constitutional amendment to take away trial by jury in civil cases.

  6. Richard Hershberger says:

    “why should McDonald’s be held liable for damages caused by a beverage which by its nature is meant to be served hot?”

    “Hot” and “not hot” is not, in the real world, a simply binary distinction. That’s why thermometers have numbers. Coffee is meant to be served hot, but it does not follow from this that it is meant to be served scalding hot, or that a reasonable person should be expected to anticipate that it will be scalding hot and treat it as such.

    “It seems absurd to think that a business would serve a product it knew no one could consume.”

    My personal experience is that I rarely eat at McDonalds, because the food is disgusting. But I have been known to stop there for a coffee fix on long drives. I prefer to drink the coffee in the restaurant rather than while driving. I long ago stopped using McDonalds even for this, since the coffee was so hot as to be undrinkable as served, and I didn’t want to wait the time required for it to cool down enough to drink. I have no idea if this is still the case.

    So while it may indeed be absurd, this does not mean it is untrue that McDonalds served their coffee in a condition where they knew no one could consume it.

  7. M. Scott Palmer, Houston, TX says:

    I’m amazed at the extent to which your law firm, years later, continues to cheer for a team that lost at the expense of public faith in a justice system that worked — whether you agree that it worked, or whether it serves you in particular, or not. There are salient facts on both sides of this issue. Yes, the coffee was very hot. Yes, she sat in it for 90 seconds. Yes, people should know coffee is hot. And yet, McDonald’s knew its coffee was dangerously hot and callously treated the risk to Ms. Liebeck as a mere cost of business. All of this evidence was heard by the factfinders, the jury. What matters now is that the factfinders heard the evidence — from both sides — and made a decision based on the evidence and the law it was charged to apply. As a member of the bar who has taken the same oath that (I presume) the attorneys in your firm have also taken, I think your continued biased commentary is irresponsible. I’m not saying that you don’t have a constitutional right to say it (questions regarding attorney ethics rules notwithstanding); you probably do. But I think you’re doing more harm than good to our legal system by doing so, and it’s ethically and morally irresponsible to continue to cry about how this jury was wrong and our system is broken simply because they dared to conclude differently than you would have them conclude. I would expect your biased editorialism from a college newspaper, not accomplished members of the bar.

    • Kim McCright says:

      Bravo, Mr. Palmer!! Thank you for being a champion of our justice system. Although not perfect (and nothing is), our system is the best we have. I hope that others take your lead and decide to take a positive attitude of the legal system, using their intelligence to find ways to strengthen it, as opposed to merely criticizing it.