Remember the Seventh Amendment? That’s the one that guarantees us the Constitutional right to settle our disputes through trial by jury. And according to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival documentary “Hot Coffee” it’s being whittled away by self-interested corporations in the name of tort reform.
The film, which the show business newspaper Variety called an "eye-opening indictment of the way big business spins the media," will be shown free Thursday 1/19 at the Parkway Theater. Director/attorney Susan Saladoff hosts a post-screening Q&A.
The briskly paced 90-minute film examines the erosion of Americans’ legal remedies in a presentation as polished and dramatic as a prosecutor’s summation. First Saladoff returns to the notorious 20-year-old lawsuit against McDonalds over the temperature of its coffee, which scalded an elderly customer. Saladoff makes a compelling case that the popular assumptions about the case – money-grabbing plaintiff, trivial harm, unwarranted lawsuit – are the opposite of the truth. Saladoff conducts streetcorner interviews with people who consider the case a textbook example of overreach. Then Saladoff shows them evidence photographs of how the near-boiling coffee gave Stella Liebeck’s third degree burns, which required extensive skin grafts. Given the facts, they understand why a jury awarded Liebeck $2.9 million in punitive and compensatory damages, though she had only sought an amount equal to the medical bills her Medicare would not cover. The judge called McDonalds' conduct reckless, callous and willful.
So how did Liebeck’s injury become a national joke? “Hot Coffee” blames a PR barrage after the plaintiff was silenced by a confidentiality order attached to her final out-of-court settlement. McDonalds and its allies twisted the facts, Saladoff argues, manufacturing an urban legend that discredited the victim as a no-good grifter. By the time jokes about the case became fodder for TV comedians, the court of public opinion effectively reversed the trial court’s finding. Liebeck v. Mcdonalds was the world’s most famous, and willfully misrepresented, lawsuit. It was, Saladoff argues, a coup for insurance companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Hot Coffee” also examines the unintended consequences of malpractice caps (taxpayers often wind up holding the bag), the legal rights we waive with almost every service contract we sign, and corporate campaigns to put sympathetic judges into courts that are designed to be free from special-interest influence. Author and attorney John Grisham explains how he based his bestseller “The Appeal” on the experiences of Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz. After winning re-election despite a campaign in which commercial interests spent millions on attack advertising, Diaz was prosecuted on bribery charges that he says were fabricated to discredit him. He was acquitted, but the smear campaign tainted his reputation and Diaz lost his 2008 re-election bid.
Saladoff’s final subject, former KBR/Halliburton employee Jamie Leigh Jones, signed a mandatory arbitration agreement when she took the job. In 2007 Jones, the 22, alleged that she was drugged, beaten and gang-raped by co-workers at company housing in Baghdad's Green Zone two years earlier. Because of her employment contract, Jones was not allowed to sue the company. Saladoff follows Leigh’s fight to try her case before a jury, rather than in secret, off the books negotiations, into the U.S. Senate chambers, where Sen. Al Franken took her side. He sponsored an amendment withholding defense contracts from companies that deny employees legal recourse for sexual assault or harassment claims require employees to arbitrate sexual harassment or assault claims. In 2009 the Senate overwhelmingly approved the amendment.
As the case moved through the legal system, KBR declared "Many, if not all, of her allegations against the KBR Defendants are demonstrably false.” Last July, the jury agreed. Durng the four-week trial, important elements of her story began to collapse, undermining her credibility and the jury found that she failed to substantiate her claims. Maybe fair and transparent jury trials look a little better to KBR.
“Hot Coffee” will be shown for free at the Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., Minneapolis. There will be a cocktail reception at 5. Director Susan Saladoff will field questions following the 6 p.m. screening. Reservations are required. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org