Personal Injury – The Myth of the Frivolous Lawsuit – Hot Coffee Part I

November 16th, 2011

After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary Hot Coffee made its television debut on HBO. The first movie directed by former attorney Susan Saladoff addresses complex problems in the country’s civil justice system including mandatory arbitration, corporate financing of judicial campaigns, caps on damages in civil / personal injury law suits (aka Tort Reform), and (in her words) “the myth of the frivolous lawsuit.”

The movie opens with a detailed explanation of the notorious “hot coffee” case of 1994 (Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants) that has become a punch line for comedians, politicians and the public alike due to many misconceptions about the lawsuit. The filmmakers used Stella Liebeck’s personal injury case as an example of the public’s stance against so-called “frivolous” lawsuits like medical malpractice cases, most of which are far more serious than they are portrayed in the media.

Saladoff then turns the attention toward caps on damages (a limit on the amount of money an injured party, aka the plaintiff, can be awarded in a civil suit). Viewers are introduced to identical twins Connor and Colin Gourley: Colin has severe cerebral palsy and Connor does not. Their mother, Lisa, blames her doctor (who previously had two other medical malpractice suits filed against her) for not ordering the ultrasound that would have clearly indicated that Lisa was a high-risk pregnancy because she was carrying just one placenta and not two. The doctor’s medical negligence caused a condition resulting in Colin’s profound brain injury at birth, requiring a lifetime of special care. A jury awarded the Gourleys $5.6 million, but this was reduced to $1.25 million due to a Nebraska law capping damages. The jury, who made the decision to award Colin the full amount of $5.6 million, was not aware a cap existed; the judge reduced the verdict after the trial had concluded.

Advocates for caps cite rising liability premiums for doctors, but a 2008 study from the Medical Liability Monitor establishes that, on average, doctors pay about $1,000 more in states with caps than those in states without caps. In the words of Texas Watch Executive Director Alex Winslow, “The myth just doesn’t jive with reality.”

Hot Coffee goes on to discuss corporate funding of judicial elections and the business practice of mandatory arbitration a discussion which I’ll address in Personal Injury – The Myth of the Frivolous Lawsuit – Hot Coffee Part II.

While Hot Coffee covers far more than the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case, it remains thoroughly engaging, helped undoubtedly by the numerous on-the-street interviews that reveal just how deep under corporate interests most of these issues have become to the average person. Most of them don’t even know it, but their right to access the American civil justice system is being endangered by corporate interests which are often proliferated by mass media spinning the facts of suits like the “hot coffee” case in ways that ridicule and perpetuate myths of “jackpot justice.”


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