In four evidence "exhibits," HOT COFFEE underscores the importance of the civil justice system and explores the dangers it currently faces. The first allows viewers to serve as the jurors in one of the most controversial lawsuits in U.S. history. When she spilled a cup of scalding hot coffee in her lap as a passenger in a parked car at McDonald's, Stella Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns and subsequently underwent years of expensive medical treatment, including skin grafts.
After she won her case against McDonald's, Liebeck - who only sought to have her medical bills paid - became a widely ridiculed poster child for tort reform and was the target of a massive public relations campaign that downplayed her injury and exaggerated the amount of money she won in court. The case became a rallying cry for corporate America, but when the Republican congress failed to pass federal tort reform legislation, big business turned its efforts to the states, a number of which have enacted caps on damages.
HOT COFFEE's second subject is 16-year-old Colin Gourley, whose severe brain injury was the result of medical malpractice at birth. Though a jury decided the Gourley family needed $5.65 million to take care of his lifetime medical and living expenses, Nebraska's state-mandated caps on both economic and non-economic damages meant they could only collect $1.25 million in total.
Such popular caps on damages takes power away from jurors, a right mandated by the Seventh Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and shift the economic from liable corporate wrongdoers to the taxpayer. Because of caps, the Gourley family was forced onto Medicaid to cover his health care costs. Although insurance companies lobby that premiums for doctors will be reduced if caps are passed, they are not required to pass along any savings to their policyholders, and ironically, health-care spending has actually increased in many states with tort-reform laws.
HOT COFFEE also examines the prosecution of Oliver Diaz. When state supreme courts were holding caps on damages unconstitutional, Karl Rove and the tort-reform movement organized well-financed campaigns to unseat judges opposed to tort reform. For example, millions of dollars were spent on TV ads to defeat Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Diaz by out-of-state corporate interests masquerading as local grassroots groups. Justice Diaz, whose story was fictionalized in John Grisham's book "The Appeal," won reelection, but was subsequently prosecuted on criminal charges that he believes were intended to taint his reputation. He was acquitted at trial, but lost the next election, unable to overcome the negative publicity. A pro-tort reform judge has taken his place.