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Former Lawyer Uses Infamous “Hot Coffee” Case to Stir up

Products liability attorneys know all about the “hot coffee” case. It has been heralded as the quintessential example of a frivolous lawsuit. In 1994, a 79 year-old Texas woman sued McDonald’s after she spilled the entire contents of a Styrofoam cup of joe onto her lap. The details of exactly what happened have been muddled over the years. Some claim the accident was entirely her fault; she was multi-tasking while driving her car and she should have known that the liquid was hot. It was, after all, coffee. It turns out that the prevalent theories may not be quite true.

At least, that is what former Oregon plaintiff’s lawyer Susan Saladoff claims in her new pro-plaintiff’s documentary entitled “Hot Coffee.” The woman wasn’t driving the car, her grandson was. And anyway, the facts show the car was at a complete stop while she was trying to prepare it and its temperature was a whopping 190 degrees. At the time, most other restaurants served their morning beverages at a much lower temperature of 150-160 degrees. McDonald’s claims the high temperature was necessary to maintain “premium taste,” but their own research showed that over 800 people had reported similar experiences – an indication, the judge said, that the company willfully and recklessly conducted its business at the time. As for the plaintiff, she suffered third-degree burns over much of her lower body and spent eight days in the hospital. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

While McDonald’s policies have long since been modified, Saladoff felt it necessary to highlight cases like these in her film because, she told the National Law Journal, the plight of the plaintiff is often overlooked. “The other side of this issue has monopolized the conversation because of the amount of money they have,” she said. She decided to make the film after 25 years of practicing law. “After 25 years, the truth is you get sort of worn down,” she said.

As a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer, I can certainly see where Saladoff is coming from. Oftentimes the defendants do indeed have more resources, especially since they are often large companies with a huge financial backing and an outstanding public reputation. The plaintiff becomes a small fish wallowing in a large pond when it comes to cases like this. Saladoff also points out another interesting view. “…Juries became less sympathetic and winning became harder. It would get me angry that I couldn’t tell my clients that I could get them justice” she says. This film, she hopes, will at least start the conversation that will change everything.

It is important to understand that corporations and their advocacy groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are pushing for tort reform alleging that litigation costs jobs. However, there is no evidence to support this assertion. Companies base their hiring on the demand for their products and services. If injury lawsuits were to go away tomorrow, no company would commence hiring. Likewise, if there is an increase in demand of for a company’s products and services, they will not fail to hire simply because of the existence of injury claims.

Injury claims are about companies and individuals taking responsibility for their actions. If I cause someone to be injured, then I need to be responsible for the results of my
conduct. In addition, injury claims force companies to manufacture safe products and to hire safe individuals to perform services. In the absence of these claims, an important aspect of ensuring corporate responsibility would be lost. Due to injury cases, we no longer have gas tanks at the rear of vehicles, we have safety guards on machines, we have safer packaging on products to prevent tampering, and a whole host of products are safer.