REMEMBER THAT OLD LADY who sued McDonald's—and won millions—after spilling a cup of drive-through coffee in her lap in 1994?
Stella Liebeck became a national punchline, fodder for cheap yuks by the likes of pabulum-spooning late-night talk-show hosts. Probably because they, unlike the jurors in the case, never got to see pictures of the thick, necrotic scorch marks on Liebeck's inner thighs.
But guess what? The joke's pretty much been on the rest of us.
Because Liebeck—a mild-mannered grandmother who died several years ago—also wound up as a rallying cry for one of the most insidious phrases in modern political history: "tort reform."
Susan Saladoff's documentary Hot Coffee traces Liebeck's case and several others in an emotionally sapping exposé of how corporate interests have spent the past 20 years systematically de-fanging the civil court system in America, one of the great levelers in a society that often favors the few and the powerful over the weak and the many.
First came the lies—about "frivolous" plaintiffs like Liebeck—employed to whip up phony outrage. Then came the lobbyists, muscling state lawmakers into passing limits on how much cash a negligent business ought to cough up when it wrecks someone's life. Finally, when state courts started slapping those caps down, lobbyists figured out they could just buy up judges, too. And so they did.
Saladoff does solid work puncturing those myths (no, medical costs have not gone down in states that have capped damage awards), while rendering very human the subjects whose stories make up Hot Coffee's emotional core.
You get the idea that some of those people—the Nebraska couple who struggled to pay for their brain-damaged son's therapy, or the rape victim denied her day in court by Halliburton—might have been among those laughing about Liebeck, too. Until something similar happened to them.