You probably don't remember Stella Liebeck, but you might remember her lap. It was her lap, or more specifically the hot coffee from McDonald's that scalded her lap, that led to Liebeck being the plaintiff in a 1994 lawsuit against the fast-food franchise.
And now, lawyer-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladoff is telling Liebeck's story in a new documentary, Hot Coffee, which premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival this week.
In the film, Saladoff tells what happened to Liebeck after the case was decided. And as she explained to The Salt Lake Tribune, she made the film to change people's perceptions about the lawsuit:
If asked to name a frivolous lawsuit, most people would name the McDonald's coffee case, believing that a woman was driving her car, spilled coffee on herself, was not seriously injured, and won millions of dollars. Every one of those [ideas] is incorrect. She was not driving; she was in a parked car; she suffered third-degree burns requiring skin grafting and surgery; the judge reduced the award to a fraction of the jury's verdict; and then the parties settled for anSaladoff uses Liebeck's story, along with three others, to raise the idea that corporations are limiting people's access to the court system by creating the perception that lawsuits like Liebeck's are frivolous. Regardless of whether you agree with the documentary's argument, there is no denying that Liebeck spilling a cup of hot coffee into her lap changed the legal landscape in America. We can see the reminder every day on our Styrofoam cups.