Summer Doc Series: Hot Coffee

By  · Published on June 27th, 2011

A woman gets coffee from McDonald’s, spills it on herself, sues, and gets a bunch of money. That’s all there is to the story, right? We know it, and we can move on.

Apparently not. Director Susan Saladoff wants to examine the human story behind an elderly woman who got third degree burns and needed skin grafts after a cup of coffee hot enough to give her third degree burns that required skin grafts spilled while she was sitting (idle) in the passenger seat of a car. In bypassing the Late Night Comedy Show butt of the joke story and heading straight for the facts of the case, Hot Coffee delivers a frustratingly compelling case for taking those kinds of lawsuits seriously.

But more than that, the movie heads past what became the poster child for a corporate movement to protect large businesses from being culpable for any and all wrong doing, and explores the world that’s been created since. It’s not a pretty picture.

What Hot Coffeegets right is what any great documentary on a political subject gets right: it’s infuriating. More so than that, though, it’s as entertaining as it is informative as it is aggravating.

While there’s no real call to action in the film, the details of cases that ended up being called “junk lawsuits” are heart-twisting and human. By meeting the people on the other side of the docket, we are shown a truth that the plaintiffs aren’t greedy asses trying to tie up the legal system in order to get millions for doing something stupid. The people profiled (the woman who sued McDonald’s, a family whose son was brain-damaged because of genuine doctor error, and a young woman who was gang raped by co-workers) are us. They aren’t lazy leeches sucking off the public dole who want a quick buck. Their stories could just as easily be our stories (and often are considering the amount of complaints registered to different corporate entities).

Admittedly, this documentary is one-sided, but the filmmakers did due diligence in trying to get statements from the companies on the other end of the table. All declined. In their stead, a few publicly available depositions from the cases are offered – a particularly damning one from a McDonald’s representative who seems uncaring despite a mountain of complaints that their coffee is kept hot enough to destroy flesh and a laughable counter-testimony from a lawyer claiming that forced arbitration helps consumers.

(The reduced story of a woman spilling coffee and winning millions is funny, but the reduced idea of selling coffee that you can’t drink is even funnier.)

Between the stories of people being affected by the corporate community’s assault on a normal citizen’s ability to go to court (which they called tort reform), Saladoff does something ingenious by doing man-on-the-street style questions with people not at all involved in the court cases. Their astonishing ignorance of the elements of these stories and modern history is second only to what ignorance the audience might find in itself. It’s an eye-opening, humbling move, and you find yourself trying to answer the questions alongside the layperson talking heads. My batting average was admittedly lower than I would have hoped.

Ultimately, it’s a thoroughly modern doc that features enough pathos to dig fingers into couch cushions. However, unlike other political documentaries that plant a flag firmly in one political party’s front yard, this is a documentary that focuses on a fight between the people and large corporations that (sometimes legitimately) harm us. It’s, sadly, not the whole story, but if this documentary stands as an accusation, corporations and certain politicians have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Think you know the wacky story of that woman who got mad because coffee was hot? Think again. This is a documentary that should be seen by everyone, and if you don’t believe it affects you, check your wallet for a credit card or your hand for a cell phone. If you’ve got them, after seeing this documentary, you might just want to check your fine print.

Hot Coffee premieres on HBO tonight at 9pm EST/PST and is available On Demand.

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