Hot Coffee is a 2011 documentary film directed by Susan Saladoff which reveals that corporate interests have systematically muscled the American people out of their own legal system, and that the ability of ordinary citizens to seek fair compensation for harm done to them has been greatly diminished.

“Frivolous lawsuits”

The movie’s title refers to the famous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants lawsuit, in which New Mexico resident Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after being burned by their coffee. Unless you have seen Hot Coffee, what you think you know about that case is probably wrong, and the film opens with some examples of the endless mocking it (and other “frivolous lawsuits”) received in the media.

Then we are shown the horrific photos of Ms. Liebeck’s burns, and suddenly the story doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

What is a tort?

“A tort is a harm,”, as former Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook explains in Hot Coffee. A tort is a civil (as opposed to criminal) wrong or injury.

So-called “tort reform,” as the film chronicles, is a political effort to diminish the liability defendants face when they are found negligent. The McDonald’s case became the poster child for this campaign, waged by corporate interests and the American Tort Reform Association. Blocked by a Bill Clinton veto, the effort refocused to target individual states.

Caps on damages

One legislative tactic used to cut liabilities is a legal limit on the amount of damages that can be awarded to plaintiffs who win lawsuits. The case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska twin who suffered severe brain damage at birth resulting from an emergency C-section performed too late, is used to illustrate how damages caps drastically reduce jury awards, without the jury even realizing this. Consequently, the burden of lifelong care for an injured party is shifted from the negligent defendant to the taxpayers, whose dollars fund programs like Medicaid.

Worse yet, Hot Coffee shows that doctors in states with caps on damages pay higher average liability premiums than doctors in states without them — contrary to the political claims made to justify caps in the first place. Not only that, but in a state like Texas, where “tort reform” has been enacted, healthcare spending increases have accelerated above the national average since the so-called reforms.

Judicial elections

Of course, taking these decisions out of the hands of the jury can be seen as unconstitutional, so judges are the next obstacle for corporate interests to overcome.

In 2000, despite a harshly negative campaign against him funded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, (the nation’s largest corporate lobbying group) Oliver E. Diaz, Jr. was elected to an eight-year term on the Mississippi Supreme Court which began in 2001.

Instead of ruling, however, he spent most of that term away from the bench fighting a highly publicized barrage of bribery and tax evasion charges, then finally lost his re-election bid.

Was Diaz prosecuted for political reasons? Author John Grisham says he doesn’t think “there’s any doubt about that.” If Diaz’s story bears a resemblance to Grisham’s novel The Appeal, about the “purchasing of a Supreme Court seat in Mississippi,” Grisham says it’s because he lived though it with Diaz.

Arbitration clause

Just when we’re feeling nauseous and helpless enough at the thought of corporate power nullifying our juries and our judges, we learn about the ridiculously common contractual provision which bars us from going to court at all.

Jamie Leigh Jones was a 19-year-old employee of Halliburton KBR when, in July of 2005, she claims she was drugged and gang-raped by her male colleagues four days after arriving for work in Iraq. Upon reporting this, she says the company locked her up in a storage container until U.S. Representative Ted Poe finally got her released.

Nevertheless, Ms. Jones was unable to sue her employer for a wrong done to her, because her contract included an arbitration clause. Any such matter must be resolved by a mediator designated by the company.

Arbitration clauses are now routine parts of agreements for such common items as credit cards and cellphone service. If you don’t have one at sign-up, it can always be slipped in later among those little fine print “changes to agreement” pamphlets that sometimes come with your bill.

Worth watching

Hot Coffee DVDHot Coffee has a clear point of view. Relatively little is presented in the way of an opposing opinion, but several obvious opposing voices are noted as having been offered an opportunity to appear which they did not accept. However, Victor Schwartz, general counsel for the American Tort Reform Association, is seen commenting several times.

In its 86 minutes, the film makes a compelling case that we Americans are rapidly losing our rights to hold companies responsible for harm through our civil courts. That story is clearly laid out, and it moves at steady pace.

Much more than merely setting the record straight on one misperceived lawsuit, Hot Coffee uses that example to crack open the broader issue. If we expect to have any chance of preserving our individual rights, we must cut through the misleading “frivolous lawsuit” and “tort reform” packaging to see what’s really going on.

This movie is a good introductory step in that direction. I rate it three out of four stars.

Susan Saladoff interviewed on The Colbert Report, October 25, 2011.

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