The McDonald's hot coffee case has been regularly lampooned on late-night talk shows and was the basis for an episode of "Seinfeld" in which Kramer sued Java World after spilling a latte on himself.
But Ashland resident and attorney Susan Saladoff says there's a much darker side to the story.
Saladoff has taken 2009 off from her Ashland law firm, Davis, Hearn, Saladoff and Bridges, to make a documentary film titled "Hot Coffee." The film's premise is that the judicial system is being manipulated by corporate America to convince the public that juries are out of control and that there are too many frivolous lawsuits. The infamous McDonald's hot coffee case is the jump-off for the film.
"It is about how corporate America and the media has distorted the truth about the criminal justice system," Saladoff said during a phone conversation while she was in Ashville, N.C. "The hot coffee case is an example of a frivolous lawsuit to the American people."
According to Saladoff, the case is used to illustrate the idea of "jackpot justice" and to suggest that juries come in with mind sets that make justice difficult for defendants in civil cases. But, Saladoff said, when given the true facts, most people no longer view the case as frivolous.
The 1994 lawsuit gained worldwide recognition after a jury awarded $2.86 million to a woman who burned herself with hot coffee she purchased from a McDonald's restaurant. A trial judge reduced the award to $640,000, and the two parties eventually settled on an undisclosed amount to avoid an appeal.
The woman, Stella Liebeck of Albuquerque, N.M., suffered third-degree burns and was hospitalized for eight days. Her attorneys argued McDonald's was aware of the danger because it had received more than 700 complaints from people burned by its coffee.
"If this case is so frivolous, why did a jury award $2.9 million dollars to this 79-year-old after a seven-day trial in 1994?" the movie's Web site, www.hotcoffeethemovie.com, states. "Did McDonald's not have good lawyers?"
"There is so much misinformation given to the public saying the system needs to be changed," Saladoff said. "The corporations are figuring a system out to prevent people from figuring the system out."
The Web site also mentions how awards are given out annually to the most outrageous lawsuits. The "Stella Awards" are named after Liebeck.
Saladoff's first taste of filming came when she videotaped a seriously brain-injured client to convince a jury of the person's disability.
"It worked and I got the film bug," Saladoff said. "Telling a story visually works better."
Saladoff took on the project because she believes she is uniquely qualified to tell the story.
"I've been a trial lawyer my whole life," she said, "and I've always represented seriously injured people."
The project has taken her to the far corners of the country, from Seattle to Albuquerque, New York to Washington, D.C., and the Southeast, with many stops in between. Footage is being shot in many of those locations, while the production work is based in New York.
Saladoff recalled one of the more memorable moments during filming in Washington, D.C.
"It was particularly fun following Jaime Lee Jones around the U.S. Senate and interviewing Sen. Al Franken after he named his first bill on the Senate floor after her," she said. "Jaime is one of our featured characters."
Jones was an employee of Halliburton and worked in Iraq. Jones was brutally gang raped four years ago by Halliburton employees in her dormitory-style living quarters. Because of a mandatory arbitration clause in her contract, she has been denied access to either civil or criminal courts.
Saladoff said mandatory arbitration clauses are a relatively new measure used by corporations to deny people their constitutional right to access the courts. Franken proposed an amendment to the Senate Defense Appropriations Bill to outlaw these types of clauses.
Saladoff said she plans to return to Ashland at the end of the year, but will continue working on the film until it is complete. The expected finish date is set for next summer of 2010 and producers hope to premier the film in one of the larger film festivals. She plans to enter it locally in the Ashland Independent Film Festival.
The movie's Web site, www.hotcoffeethemovie.com, contains information about the film, a trailer, Saladoff's personal blog and how to contribute to the film. Saladoff said the budget for the movie is $500,000 and noted it's a nonprofit endeavor.
F.B. Drake III is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.