Stella Liebeck was a 79-year old woman whose unfortunate interaction with a cup of scalding hot (180-degree) McDonalds coffee in 1992 catapulted her to national attention. Suffering third-degree burns, Liebeck sued the corporation and won. To many, her lawsuit was the epitome of the types of frivolous lawsuits reportedly clogging our nation's courtrooms. Hot Coffee is a non-fiction exploration of how such public conclusions were manufactured by corporations via their political lobbying power and the ramifications behind this mass swaying of public opinion and, subsequently, judicial policy.
Director Susan Saladoff uses Liebeck's case as a jumping off point to examine tort reform, non-economic damages caps, mandatory arbitration and other limits placed upon victims seeking justice. Her film argues that such recent changes, adopted over just a few decades time, move the power of our nation's justice system out of the hands of juries, improperly stacking the deck in favor of business interests.
In aid of this thesis, Saladoff offers up a series of real life examples of people whose lives have been forever negatively impacted by their inability to gain justice via the courts. She interviews a couple from Nebraska whose son suffered brain damage at birth due to medical malpractice. Because of artificial caps on damages in their home state, the compensation awarded them by a jury in a malpractice suit was severely reduced, putting the burden for their son's care on the taxpayers and putting his future into question.
Hot Coffee also presents the travails of one Jamie Leigh Jones, a former employee of KBR who was gang-raped and imprisoned by several of her co-workers while stationed in Bagdad. Due to a binding mandatory arbitration clause in her employment contract, she's legally restricted from having her case heard in a court of law. The film follows Jones as she enlists Senator Al Franken's aid in seeking legal retribution against those who wronged her.
Hot Coffee demonstrates the slow but sure rewiring of our legal system to represent corporations, protecting them from liability claims by those that are harmed by their business practices. It's an incredibly grim piece that reveals a concerted effort by lawmakers, business leaders and lobbying groups in aid of that goal.
Perhaps the film's best conveyance of how the wool was pulled over the public's eyes: an interview subject relays the story of a man who was awarded damages by a jury of his peers, only to have the award significantly adjusted down due to non-economic damages caps that he helped vote into law. His reaction: the legislation being voted upon was for "those frivolous lawsuits," not for his case.
Hot Coffee plays at the Hollywood Theatre on Thursday, April 12th at 7:30pm, Saturday, April 14th at 3pm, and Thursday, April 26th at 7pm. Susan Saladoff will be in attendance for the April 12th and 14th screenings. More info here.
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