HOT COFFEE (dir. Susan Saladoff, 2011, 85 minutes) is an HBO documentary that is Oscar-worthy and should be bought/shown in every school, town council meeting ... I can't think of enough places. Never have I seen a documentary that taught me so much in so little time. And what I learned is just how badly the rights of American citizens have been damaged, how horribly corrupt our judicial and legislative branches have become.
This is a documentary about tort reform. You see, a "tort" is a "harm" or a "damage". If you are like nearly 100% of America, you'll be asking what that is. I will tell you without spoiling the documentary--you WILL want to see this for yourself.
Presenting itself in a tightly organized, well developed set of four "exhibits", HOT COFFEE begins with a case I will describe herein--the others I will leave for the viewer to watch and learn. The "exhibits" consist of:
I. Public Relations Campaign
II. Caps On Damages
III. Judicial Elections
IV. Mandatory Arbitration.
In "Exhibit I" we learn about the true story of the lady from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who burned herself with McDonald's coffee. Stella Liebeck was along for a drive with her nephew (she was a passenger and no, it was not her grandson as is stated by dum-dums all over America), and they stopped at McDonald's.
Stella ordered coffee which was demonically hot (and a jury found there is no excuse for this, period). When she spilled it on her lap she suffered life-threatening 3rd degree burns. This was not helped by her age and the resulting thinness of her skin, especially in the areas the coffee spilled. She had no way of getting to the spilled coffee in time and certainly no relief in sight.
Plus a huge shout-out to McDonald's total lack of common sense in providing SAFE cups and lids. Stella endured a lengthy stay in hospital, where she required surgery, skin grafts and therapy. It was a miracle she survived at all, according to physicians. Thinking McDonald's should pay for her $10,000 hospital treatment, she and family approached McD's. They got the raspberry, so they sued.
Stella was awarded over $2 million, but she was left with a damages award of less than $200,000. She settled with McDonald's out of court for an undisclosed amount. The campaign against her "frivolous" lawsuit (a/k/a "junk" lawsuit) shocked all who knew about her sufferings.
Yet the "tort reformists", those who want us to be harmed and never have any apparatus of accountability to help us, well they jumped all over this case as the example of the epoch. Not knowing the horrors of the injuries suffered by this elderly lady, and not caring, the monsters that wield power began the campaign to take away our right to have our day in court. That, under any and all circumstances, is un-Constitutional.
This documentary will teach you all that and then tell you about the Chamber of Commerce. The COC is a private organization of high-octane superpower corporations, and one of the many things they do is rig judicial campaigns any way they can so the judges on the state supreme courts will rule in their favor when tort cases arise. (This, then, is the heart of what it means to say "tort reform".)
You will learn in this film that this is not the worst of it. Along with legislation state-by-state capping the damages a jury can award, the C.O.C. also succeeded in another devious device: mandatory arbitration. The mandatory binding arbitration clause in any contract says you (the contractee) cannot sue the contractor. Instead, you only get mandatory arbitration by an arbitration company, chosen by your contractor, and this is a secret, final-word hearing that will not be in your favor.
In other words, these companies rob you of even a chance of your "day in court" should that day ever arise.
Mandatory arbitration plus caps on damages in tort cases fly in the face of all basic rights, as this film clearly explains. Often, when you purchase utilities or insurance, you may subsequently get a supplemental flyer--the type no one in their right mind ever reads--and the mandatory arbitration clause is included in there.
The remaining sections show us only a few exemplary cases: in the instance of caps on damages, in which a jury can award whatever they want (because you won't get that anyway), we learn of a family that can never fully meet the needs of their brain-damaged son. Why? Their damages award was automatically capped. The jury, as usual, didn't know that fact. "Caps relieve the wrongdoer," says one attorney.
In the case of rigged judicial elections, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, an anti-tort reform justice, was hounded and crucified over and over during his bid for re-election. He was hounded right out of the election, but as I recall he lost big time anyway, and there was suspicion about the entire thing. The powers wanted a pro-tort reform justice.
In the case of mandatory arbitration, we learn about a young lady who worked for Halliburton and went to Iraq. What happened to her there, and how she was denied justice for over four years, all because of the sneaky arbitration clause in her employment contract, will make your skin crawl.
GET THIS. Learn from it and do not forget the lessons you will learn. Because the only way to fix all this is to first undo the ignorance that reigns in this country. We must learn about these matters. Very likely, you have at least a dozen contracts with mandatory arbitration clauses in them, such as your phone account, credit cards, insurances.
YOU will know after you watch this fantastic, balanced, must-see documentary. You have the right to sue someone who has harmed you. You have the right to your court time. You have the right "to get what you bargained for." As one attorney says, "When you win a case, you win it ... not only for yourself ... but also for [all] other people."
Stella Liebeck, the woman who nearly died from that McDonald's hot coffee, passed away at the age of 91 in 2004. There is still talk about her case, talk laced with disgust. So I make this review dedicated to her memory.