“Hot Coffee” Film Takes Accusations of Frivolity to Task

Posted on July 24, 2012

It’s been awhile, but for those who pay attention to late night comedy, you’re likely familiar with the story:  a woman visits a McDonald’s, orders a hot coffee, spills said coffee on her body, and proceeds to move forward with a lawsuit against the corporation.  The story was fodder for countless comedians when it happened, and citizens across the country rolled their eyes at the ludicrousness of the situation.

A documentary released in 2011 sheds light on this incident, and in the process, brings to viewers’ attention facts that had previously gone overlooked in the rush to poke fun at this “frivolous” lawsuit.  Going by the simple title “Hot Coffee,” the movie was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Best Documentary Grand Jury Prize from the Seattle International Film Festival.

The filmmakers achieved this kind of success thanks to their diligence in making known the circumstances that surrounded this case and three others.  The victim of the hot coffee accident was a 79 year old woman in good health who had an active lifestyle and a full time job.  Her life was turned upside down when she purchased a coffee from a McDonald’s restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

At the time of the incident, the vehicle she was in was not in motion, nor was she even the one behind the wheel.  The victim sat in the passenger seat as the vehicle was at a complete stop in the parking lot of the fast food restaurant.  The individual placed the coffee between her knees in a bid to carefully remove the lid.

We all know what unfortunately transpired at that point.  The coffee spilled on the woman’s groin, thighs, and buttocks.  Under McDonald’s standard operating procedures at the time, coffee was to be brewed between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit.  The woman’s own surgeon admitted that a liquid at this temperature could force someone to incur full thickness burns.

The injuries suffered by the plaintiff were so great as to require eight days in the hospital.  She sustained third degree burn damage to 6% of her body and some lesser burn damage to 16% of her person.  Repairing the damage required multiple skin grafts.

At first, the victim wrote a letter to McDonald’s asking for a scant $10,000, an amount she felt would compensate her for her medical bills.  McDonald’s rebuffed this offer, counter-offering a borderline insulting $800.  A legal team eventually got involved, which is how the woman was awarded $480,000 in punitive damages and $160,000 in compensatory damages.  Not helping the fast food conglomerate’s case was the fact that 700 complaints about burns poured in between February 1983 and March 1992.

It goes to show that many lawsuits are not as frivolous as they might initially seem.  To learn more about this case, visit http://www.hotcoffeethemovie.com/.

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