Everyone knows the case of the woman who sued McDonald s over spilled coffee. Or do they? More than 15 years after making international news, the case continues to be cited as an example of citizens who use frivolous lawsuits to take unfair advantage of the American legal system. But is that an accurate portrayal of the facts?
An eye-opening documentary with jaw-dropping revelations, HOT COFFEE exposes how corporations spend millions on propaganda campaigns to distort Americans' view of lawsuits forever changing the civil justice system. By examining the impact of tort reform on the lives of ordinary citizens, the film shows how Americans give up their Constitutional rights in all sorts of ways without knowing it for example, by voting for caps on damages or signing away your rights in contracts. Through interviews with politicians, judges, lawyers and ordinary citizens, first-time filmmaker and former public-interest lawyer Susan Saladoff delves into the facts of four cases to tear apart the conventional wisdom about jackpot justice.
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Many people recall the infamous 1994 episode in which an elderly woman named Stella Liebeck spilled a cup of scalding hot McDonald's coffee in her lap, resulting in major burns and a lawsuit against the restaurant chain that earned her nearly $2.6 million in damages (many fewer remember that the amount was very substantially reduced in a subsequent judgment). Filmmaker Susan Saladoff obviously remembers--the incident provided the title for and is featured prominently in Hot Coffee, her documentary about the nature of civil suits. But Saladoff, who is herself a lawyer, has an unexpected take on the matter. The Liebeck case, the film suggests, was in fact a public relations coup for McDonald's, who helped turn it into Exhibit A in the campaign to limit so-called "frivolous" lawsuits, also known as "tort reform." But while those who advocated tort reform contended that it would be good for everyone, including taxpayers, the principal beneficiary was big business (President George W. Bush's crusade to limit medical malpractice suits is represented here as a gift to giant insurance companies), while genuine victims, including Liebeck, were denied justice (when several man-on-the-street interviewees are shown graphic photos of her severe injuries, they quickly change their tunes about the frivolity of her suit). Other serious charges are leveled in the course of the film, which argues that caps on the amount of damages awarded by juries in civil suits have been disastrous for deserving plaintiffs; that the big business-loving U.S. Chamber of Commerce has helped defeat any number of state supreme court justices whose rulings have favored plaintiffs over corporate defendants; and that the insistence by many companies that employees sign contracts forbidding them to sue their employers, forcing them to instead submit to mandatory arbitration, has put their fates into the hands of people hired solely to protect the company's interests (the tale of one young woman who worked for Halliburton in Iraq is especially disturbing). It's unlikely that Hot Coffee will be garnering many positive reviews on Fox News, as the film's point of view is decidedly pro-consumer/anti-corporation. Still, regardless of one's political leanings, it will be hard not to be shocked by what it says about our legal system. --Sam Graham
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