It was the lawsuit that spawned a thousand late-night jokes and one memorable storyline on “Seinfeld,” but the original “hot coffee” lawsuit was anything but funny.
That’s what you’ll learn if you watch “Hot Coffee,” a very illuminating documentary premiering Monday (June 27) at 9 p.m./8c on HBO. It’s a nearly 90-minute documentary about civil justice, and the efforts by powerful interests – corporations and Republicans for the most part, according to the film – to persuade legislators to reform the system, place limits on monetary awards and, the theory goes, discourage the filing of “frivolous” lawsuits.
However, as this film so eloquently reveals, the 1994 “hot coffee” case that pitted an elderly Albuquerque woman against McDonald’s was anything but “frivolous,” though it came to be described that way by journalists, commentators and comedians.
If you think you know the details of this case – in which the woman, Stella Liebeck, 79, came to sue McDonald’s after she spilled a cup of the restaurant’s hot coffee on her lap – then think again. Once you see this, you’ll wonder how you ever came to laugh at this seriously injured woman and her situation.
Sure – you laughed because Letterman, Leno and all the rest couldn’t stop joking about it. But as this documentary points out, the real blame falls on the nation’s journalists, who misreported the whole story from the get-go – a shocking dereliction of journalistic responsibility on a mass level.
The story – or, to be more specific, the misperception of the story – became iconic when it became one of the plotlines on the third episode of the seventh season of “Seinfeld,” the episode titled “The Maestro,” which premiered on Oct. 5, 1995. In the episode, Kramer (Michael Richards) sues a coffee chain after he clumsily burns himself with a hot cup of joe. The episode included the first appearance of one of the all-time great “Seinfeld” characters, flamboyant attorney “Jackie Chiles,” played by Phil Morris. The documentary acknowledges the sitcom right up front, opening with scenes from the episode, in which Kramer burns himself while trying to sneak a cup of coffee into a movie with Jerry.
“Hot Coffee” is part of HBO’s ongoing summer series of documentaries premiering Monday nights at 9/8c.