First-time filmmaker and former public interest lawyer Susan Saladoff used the infamous legal battle that began with a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee to investigate what is behind America’s zeal for ‘tort reform’ – which , she states, “threatens to restrict the legal rights of everyday citizens and undermine the entire civil justice system“.
Hot Coffee is divided into four main parts. The first deals with the highly publicized case of McDonalds and an elderly lady, Stella Liebeck, who suffered life-threatening burns from a cup of coffee bought from the fast-food restaurant. Although media reports led people to believe that she was driving at the time and behaving without due care, in fact she was sitting in a car that was not moving, in the passenger seat, and simply attempted to remove the lid of the coffee. Despite the mockery that was rife in the media, it transpired that 700 other cases of burns had been accumulated against the company, and following this case, the film claims that McDonalds reduced the temperature at which they store coffee.
The second part of the film deals with the capping of damages – limits placed in certain States on the amounts that can be awarded, regardless of how justified a claim might be. Examples are given of cases where juries made high awards that were subsequently reduced by the judge or by the High or Supreme Court.
In the third part, the issue of judicial elections is covered, in particular referring to a smear campaign carried out against Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi Supreme Court judge. Perhaps the most surprising point for those outside the USA is the influence that business or other pressure groups might exert over the appointment of judges at high levels.
The fourth and final part of the film deals with mandatory arbitration and the case of the company Halliburton and a female employee, Jamie Leigh Jones. It discusses employment contracts with clauses through which employees agree that any dispute whatsoever will be resolved through arbitration, waiving their right to take a case to Court. It also refers to the many agreements that the public may sign waiving similar rights – such as credit card, cellphone, computer equipment or health club membership agreements.
Hot Coffee also includes several short interview extracts with George Lakoff, the well-known cognitive linguist and specialist on metaphor. He talks about language being repeated over and over again to instill a message, and also stresses the courage of those who go to court – dissenting from the idea of “jackpot justice” or frivolous law suits – Lakoff holds that most people will not take such action lightly.
Below you can see the official trailer. The DVD can be obtained through the independent film producers here.