ICJL President: Bogus Arguments, Bogus Documentary

Ed Murnane Jun. 30, 2011, 10:00am


The label on the back of a jar of Folger's Classic Roast instant coffee, purchased Wednesday, June, 29, in a Chicago suburb, reads almost exactly as the label on instant coffee purchased in 1995:

Directions: Use one slightly rounded teaspoon per 6 fl. Oz cup, add boiling water, stir.

The principles of physics haven't changed since the early 1990s either. Water boils at 212 degrees. It is hot, very hot. Some coffee makers recommend 180 degrees for better taste, but it is still hot.

If a McDonald's drive-through employee spills a cup of hot coffee on a customer, it is logical and within reason that McDonald's should bear the responsibility. If an injury is severe, the responsibility, and the compensation, might also be severe. There is no argument.

But that's not what happened to Stella Liebeck in 1992 and the personal injury trial lawyers, including those in Illinois, want to continue to perpetuate a myth.

The McDonald's "hot coffee" story has been around since the mid 1990s. It involved the case of a 79-year-old woman in New Mexico (Stella Liebeck) who was trying to remove the lid from a cup of coffee she had purchased at a McDonalds. She placed the cup between her knees, it spilled and she was scalded.

At no time was there an accusation that a McDonald's employee deliberately poured the coffee on the late Stella Liebeck (her death was not caused by her carelessness with a cup of hot coffee).

There were charges that the coffee was too hot, but none suggested it was still boiling.

Although the incident happened in New Mexico, this case was of particular interest in Illinois – not because of where it happened – but because McDonald's Corporation is based in Illinois (in Oak Brook) and also because it reached a peak in media attention at precisely the same time Illinois legislators were considering a comprehensive "tort reform" legislative proposal.

On one particular weekend in early 1995, I recall participating on two Chicago television talk shows with Dave Decker, then president of the Illinois State Bar Association, to discuss the pending tort reform legislation in Illinois and on both programs, the "hot coffee" issue was discussed. The trial lawyers then, and trial lawyers now, use it as an example of "corporate irresponsibility" or some such term.

Last week, the latest attempt by the personal injury trial lawyers in the U.S. to use this self-inflicted injury as an example of the excesses of "special interest groups" was unveiled on HBO television.

The movie, referred to as a "documentary" by its producers and advocates, is entitled, "Hot Coffee."

It is not a documentary, which suggests, according to one definition of "documentary" in American Heritage dictionary, "presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter."

The HBO presentation was directed by Susan Saladorff, a former medical malpractice attorney and a "long-time activist in trial-lawyer groups fighting to head off legal reforms that would rein in runaway juries that award nut-ball sums in personal injury cases." That description is from the Miami Herald.

The Herald columnist further describes it: "Her film is studded with interviews from supposedly disinterested legal experts from groups with noble-sounding names like the Center for Justice and Democracy that are actually political front groups for trial attorneys opposing reforms."

You may have seen the movie. It was heavily promoted in Illinois by -- surprise surprise -- the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

ITLA President Jerry A. Latherow distributed a news release to Illinois media outlets encouraging the public to watch the movie. To our knowledge, the only publication that did include the news release was the Madison County Record, and that prompted a second news release from ITLA.

A Pennsylvania law firm, Gallivan, White and Boyd, wrote about Susan Saladoff and her "documentary" earlier this year.

"We think it's important for filmgoers and, perhaps most importantly, film critics writing about the film, to be fully aware of the background of the filmmaker behind this effort.

Saladoff is not the typical documentary filmmaker. She spent 25 years representing plaintiffs in personal injury, medical malpractice, and products liability actions. Long before anyone heard the name 'Stella Liebeck,' Saladoff served as a member and officer of many trial lawyer groups. Since 1983, she has been an active member (and past President) of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice ("TLPJ") – an organization that has launched a campaign "designed to expose, challenge, and defeat the assault now taking place on the right to a day in court."

The trial lawyers, in Illinois and elsewhere, like to call attention to the "conspiracy" of big business and big medicine, including doctors and pharmaceuticals and hospitals to deny citizens their right to their "day in court."

But when it comes to conspiracies, they are masters.

And no, I did not watch the movie. I know the story. I know the facts. I know who the producer is. And I know where the favorable reviews come from.

Sometimes you don't need to see a movie to know it is bogus.

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Illinois Trial Lawyers Association
401 W Edwards St
Springfield, IL 62704

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