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Hot Coffee Screening and Panel Discussion of Tort Reform

September 27, 2011
Professor Regina Austin
Professor Regina Austin

By Jenny Chung C’12

On Monday evening, an audience of Penn Law students, faculty and local patrons of the arts filed into International House Philadelphia’s Ibrahim Theater for a screening of the documentary Hot Coffee, followed by a panel discussion on the film and the questions it raises.

The event inaugurated the Alan Lerner Social Justice Series, which — in the spirit of social justice advocate and former Penn Law professor Alan Lerner — aims to raise awareness of critical social justice topics through the medium of film. Organized in collaboration with nonprofit First Person Arts and cosponsored by Penn Law and the American Civil Liberties Union, the series will “capture the drama of real life through art” in the interest of provoking discussion about contemporary social issues, according to First Person Arts President Vicki Solot. 

In accord with the series’ commitment to fostering public awareness of social justice concerns, Hot Coffee exposes and examines the mechanisms by which corporations seek to deny consumers access to the courtroom and perpetuate inequities within the civil justice system.

The film opens by reconstructing the infamous “McDonald’s coffee case,” in which a woman who sustained extensive third-degree burns after spilling said beverage into her lap was awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages. The case then became a rallying point for tort reform, in large part due to the perceived frivolity of the lawsuit.

Through a series of interviews featuring the jurors who had ruled in favor of the plaintiff along with her physician, attorney, and family members, the film dispels a number of popular misconceptions surrounding the case. Contrary to general assumption, the plaintiff had requested compensation only to finance medical expenses, and McDonald’s had previously faced—and ignored—over 700 complaints about burns from hot beverages.

The film proceeds to document the tort reform campaign launched in the wake of the “coffee case” by corporate interests with political clout, which succeeded both in limiting the amount plaintiffs could receive in damages and electing conservative pro-business judges to state courts. It likewise reveals the extent to which corporate contributions can influence judicial campaigns, citing the election of former Mississippi state justice Oliver Diaz as a recent example.

Following the “coffee case,” two other court cases are invoked to illustrate the shortcomings of the civil justice system: the film goes on to depict a medical malpractice case wherein the plaintiffs could not fully recover the compensation awarded in court due to state caps on damages, and concludes with a case involving a woman who had unknowingly forfeited her right to seek redress in court for sexual assault as a result of a mandatory arbitration clause in her employment contract.

Professor Tom Baker
Penn Law Professor Tom Baker appears in the documentary

The screening was followed by a panel discussion in which Professor Mark Rahdert of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and Penn Law professors Regina Austin and Tom Baker expressed their views on the content and presentation of the documentary.

Rahdert characterized the film’s treatment of the McDonald’s case as an “important corrective to some serious distortion about the case put forward in the ‘90s as part of the campaign for tort reform.”

“It’s useful for us to see the complexities and realities behind it,” he said, adding that such “poster child” cases generally tend to invite oversimplification and exaggeration.

Austin’s critique of the documentary centered primarily on its failure to “leave room for the audience to own its material and conclusions,” articulating the need for audiences “to think about what these stories mean and what should follow.”

“The ‘hot coffee case’ represents the idea that personal responsibility is an important value in society,” she said. “The question is, what story goes along with ideas about personal responsibility?”

According to Baker, statistics indicate that the vast majority of those who may be entitled to a civil lawsuit opt not to sue. “Decades of social psychology research have proven that the primary way people deal with harm in our society is to lump it,” he said. He further explained that “from the legal system’s perspective, there are not many frivolous lawsuits.”

Rahdert, who affirmed this view, attributes the legitimacy of most lawsuits to the “structure of the practice of law, especially in the tort arena.”

As most plaintiffs’ cases are brought by lawyers who earn contingent fees dependent on their outcomes, he said, “the business model of the sensible attorney sifts out all but the most meritorious cases because there’s too much risk of spending time and effort and getting nothing in return.”