A Reputation Built By Success

Sundance Review: Hot Coffee

Susan Saladoff’s documentary is entertaining and informative, vividly illuminating the wrongs of systems like tort reform.

PARK CITY – Hot Coffee is strong brew, a scalding documentary on tort reform that should stir up your blood pressure faster than a triple espresso. The Sundance audience rendered a favorable verdict on this impressive film debut of filmmaker Susan Saladoff.

Like many excellent documentaries, Hot Coffee is more a visual editorial rather than an all-encompassing and comprehensive distillation of a subject matter, in this case, our tort system. Essentially, it will play to standing ovations with the Trial Lawyers Assn., but be deplored by corporations and such entities as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Such is the direct force of its message.

No matter whether your politics leans left or right, Hot Coffee is a potent and provocative documentary. In this heady presentation, Saladoff presents a compelling case on how corporate America has utilized sensationalized lawsuit settlements to curry public opinion against “frivolous” lawsuits. Most jarringly, she focuses on the infamous McDonald’s case where a woman was awarded millions for spilling hot McDonald’s coffee on herself. Lending perspective, Saladoff also includes numerous man-in-the-street interviews, which clearly indicate that the general public’s uninformed view of the case was that it was outrageous for someone to sue over hot coffee.

Filmmaker Saladoff pinpoints that case, interviewing the elderly plaintiff, as well as showing graphic medical photographs of the burns she suffered in her private areas that are so jarring and horrific that one must look away. Saladoff also presents vividly McDonalds’ arrogant and dismissive treatment of the woman when she initially sought just to have her medical bills covered. All the while, McDonald’s had in its files numerous other reports where McCustomers had been injured by their overly hot brew.

Saladoff also presents three other outrageous cases, including one against Halliburton by a 19-year-old girl who, when assigned to Iraq, was quartered with males, and gang-raped and badly beaten. Her complaints went unheeded by the mega-defense operator.

In the film, Saladoff also addressed two other outrageous cases, which further delineated how appeals courts, whose judges are often elected, tend to be corporate friendly. Big companies funnel large sums of money into the campaign coffers of “business friendly” candidates.

Another jarring issue that emerges from Saladoff’s fertile film is “mandated arbitration.” It’s an often hidden clause in such seemingly innocuous documents as cell-phone and credit-card contracts where the recipient signs away his/her rights to sue the company for “harm,” which is what a tort is.

More serious, employment contracts also often contain these clauses, again buried amid the legal mumbo-jumbo, that stipulates that an employee forfeits their right to sue if they suffer injury or harm while employed; in a nutshell, they must settle their claim through arbitration. And guess who selects the arbitrators? The mega-employer, of course. Plus, the arbitration hearings are sealed and only the verdict made public.

Saladoff’s presentation is informative and, best yet, entertaining. She takes an important issue like tort reform, hardly a “sexy” subject and illuminates vividly the wrongs of the system. It would not seem improbable that a K Street public relations firm representing big business might soon be engaged to produce a counterpoint documentary – so compelling is Saladoff’s film.

Fluidly paced, including interviews with such informed luminaries as John Grisham and Al Franken, Saladoff has invigorated what many would consider dry legal subject matter and put a human face on it. It’s likely that most audience members will see that human face when they look in the mirror, as each of us is vulnerable in personal and unique ways to this stacked-deck, tort system.

The Hollywood Reporter
1/26/2011 by Duane Byrge