Hot Coffee debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
The McDonald’s “hot coffee” lawsuit has become a kind of shorthand not just for a particular viewpoint—usually associated with tort reform—but also for a kind of thinking, for the idea that the American judicial system is out of control, and people have lost all common sense. They can’t think for themselves, so when something goes wrong, they blame an outside entity, usually a corporate or business one. And then those costs are passed on to you, you who have enough common sense to know that coffee is supposed to be hot, dammit. And the only thing worse than the woman who sued for damages was the jury that awarded her over $2 million (before that was reduced on appeal). The world is going nuts, and whatever happened to the America of our youth, and so on and so forth.
If nothing else, HBO’s new documentary Hot Coffee, directed by Susan Saladoff, removes the titular case out of the realm of national mythology and brings it back down to the level of reality. Any time something becomes conventional wisdom or turns into a joke on late night talk shows, it automatically loses all nuance. It has to if it’s going to be a joke or something people just accept without really thinking about it. And that’s fine, as these things go, but it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that real life is more complex than a joke, that things aren’t always so cut and dry. The section of the documentary that deals with the McDonald’s lawsuit (brought by a woman named Stella Liebeck) is almost the most gleeful of the film, puncturing the many myths that have sprung up around the case with a kind of manic excitement, as if Saladoff couldn’t wait to get all of this on film.
And, yeah, the way that Liebeck’s case was portrayed in the media was completely unfair. (The film opens with a clip of the Seinfeld episode where Kramer spills coffee on himself and proclaims it too hot to remind us of the climate at the time.) Liebeck wasn’t driving her car. She didn’t ask for millions of dollars in damages, just medical bills. McDonald’s had been quietly settling with lots of other burn victims over the years, simply because the holding temperature it used for the water in its coffee was so hot that skin contact would mean burns, sometimes horrific ones. The documentary shows images of Liebeck’s thighs after the incident, and they’re mangled so badly they barely resemble human flesh. To recover, Liebeck required skin grafts. The jury that awarded the over-$2-million damages decided on that amount as a way to let McDonald’s know that if it continued to set its holding temperature too high, it would continue to pay big money, rather than settling out of court. (And, indeed, the chain's holding temperature is much lower now.) It’s a good example of how a documentary can be used to puncture a lot of what you think you know without preachiness or condescension.
The rest of Hot Coffee, then, uses Liebeck’s case to spin off into a number of different directions with one central aim: to make the case that corporations are trying to crowd normal citizens out of civil courts, one of the only places said citizens have where they’re on equal footing with corporate interests. Hot Coffee is an op-ed doc, to be sure, and those who disagree with its claims will probably have a standard list of talking points to toss out there when the film is over. But it’s an unusually well-done one, with little of the glib shorthand that characterizes the worst op-ed docs and a case that’s built slowly over the course of the film, with plenty of fascinating details that will interest even those who dispute the movie’s central thesis. (For instance, did you know doctors in states with caps on medical malpractice damages actually end up spending more on malpractice insurance on average than doctors in states without caps?)
Liebeck’s case is just Saladoff’s way into this tricky issue. To her credit, she brings a lot of complex ideas—like mandatory arbitration or corporate groups setting up faux-grass roots organizations to make it seem as if there were a huge public groundswell behind the idea of tort reform in the ‘90s, when no one really knew what the hell tort reform was—down to Earth and does so succinctly and with obvious passion. And the structure of the film is ingenious. After Liebeck, Saladoff uses two other cases—one of a family in Nebraska that sued after their son was born brain damaged due to doctor error and found itself hurt by a cap placed on damages and one of a woman who worked for Halliburton and was raped and beaten by fellow employees, then unable to find redress in court—and the judicial election of Oliver Diaz (who somehow beat a corporate-backed candidate, then found himself hounded by indictments) to make her case, and she’s very good at playing up the human side of these stories. Every complex idea here gets grounded in a simple, human story, rather than Saladoff tossing reams of examples at the viewer (though one gets the sense, particularly in the “frivolous lawsuits” section, that she could).
The corporations, as always in these types of films, are faceless monoliths (especially since no one would go on the record from the vast majority of them), and the people facing off against them are scrappy underdogs, but Saladoff earns the right to those clichés by taking the time to discuss every possible objection someone could have to the case the film makes and by showing some of the horror and struggle the subjects in the film have had to go through in the course of pursuing their lawsuits. And the people she interviews for the film include wide swathes of people from all backgrounds (including man on the street interviews designed to show how little the average citizen knows about the civil legal system; I certainly didn’t know most of this stuff). This may be the first documentary in existence to feature talking heads from both Al Franken and John Grisham.
If there’s a flaw in the film (outside of an overly obtrusive score), it’s that Saladoff offers few suggestions for how the country should go forward. The best op-ed docs make a case, then provide an argument for where things should go next. And while there are a few ideas tossed around here and there, Saladoff’s suggestions mostly seem to boil down to, “This all sucks, and we should probably do less of it.” And that’s all well and good, but too many left-leaning op-ed documentaries seem to believe that plucky, can-do optimism is the solution to every problem bedeviling the world. Hot Coffee isn’t as bad in this regard as something like Food, Inc., but it does seize up a bit at the end when Saladoff aims to pull her case together and make suggestions for the future. The case is pulled together with passion; the suggestions amount to a shoulder shrug.
But that almost doesn’t matter because Hot Coffee takes something you thought you knew—frivolous lawsuits are out of control!—and makes you question that “common sense” logic. Even if you end up deciding the film’s case is unpersuasive (and I will admit I was readily persuaded), you’ll likely be sucked in by the film’s obvious craft and entertaining montage editing. This is a serious film about a serious subject that moves like a rocket because it’s so excited to make its case and give you all of this information. And in the process, it takes something most people “know” to be true and re-introduces some nuance to it. Hot Coffee isn’t perfect, but it’s so enjoyable and fact-packed that even its detractors will be having a good time as they sharpen their knives.