Hot Coffee

Remember that little old lady driver from Albuquerque who sued McDonald's after spilling its coffee in her lap? The one who, after that 1992 mishap, won millions in a lawsuit? Ridiculous, right? Or maybe not. Susan Saladoff's HBO documentary reveals how much the public didn't know about the infamous case. For instance: 79-year-old Stella Liebeck (now deceased) wasn't even driving; she was parked and sitting in the passenger seat. Also, ignoring hundreds of previous complaints, McDonald's was brewing its coffee at a temperature (over 180 degrees!) far above its own standards. And Liebeck sustained serious injuries (horrifying photos are shown), requiring millions of dollars' worth of surgery and skin grafts. Liebeck v. McDonald's wasn't so frivolous as the media made out. Made by a former plaintiff's attorney, this fascinating film also explores how the Liebeck case prompted a big-business campaign for damage caps and tort reform, which restricts people's rights to go to court. (It also recalls how George W. Bush was renowned as "The Tort Reformer in Chief.") And more recently, why was a 19-year-old female Halliburton employee—drugged and brutally raped by her co-workers, imprisoned by her company in a shipping container—legally unable to sue for damages? One answer is the startling ignorance many of us have about the legal system. When a man-on-the-street interviewee is asked here for a definition of tort reform, he states with confidence, "I think a tort is a piece of bread that looks like a hoagie roll." (NR) ERIN K. THOMPSON

Fri., Feb. 17, 7 p.m., 2012

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