May I request that if you do not agree with the legal DECISIONS in this documentary, please do not post essay-length refutations of the cases. I'm not an attorney, I'm a film critic, and can barely tolerate doing that anymore. Write your own review! Leave me in peace!
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. 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; and 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 they stopped at McDonald's.
Let me repeat and clarify one thing: Stella was with her NEPHEW, not her grandson. The fact that so many people report she was with her grandson is a sad example of the way people pay little mind to anything they read or hear. If you can't keep that fact straight - heaven knows how you could make that error - then what hope can you have of comprehending Stella's case?!
Back to it: Stella ordered coffee which was so demonically hot that when she spilled it on her lap she suffered life-threatening 3rd degree burns (an accident that I am sure has happened to us all: even Lord Byron told a famous story about spilling tea on himself). 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.
Stella endured a lengthy stay in hospital, where she required surgery, skin grafts and therapy. It was a miracle that she survived. 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. The campaign against her "frivolous" lawsuit - a/k/a "junk" lawsuit - shocked all who knew about her sufferings. (My thanks to some great reviewers who clarified this point for me.)
You see, a "tort" is a "harm". She was harmed by McDonald's via their insanely hot coffee. "Tort reform" is another term for "screw the citizen in cases of harm". Tort reformists 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.
The Chamber of Commerce 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. Yet this is not the worst of it. Along with legislation state-by-state capping damages a jury can award, the C.O.C. also succeeded in another devious device: mandatory arbitration.
The mandatory (or "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 - many phone companies among them - rob you of your "day in court" should the need for that day arise. I recall when I first learned about this issue: a physician who had an unpaid insurance claim in arbitration. The weird thing is doctors, insurance companies, hospitals and all other corporate monsters are the ones who benefit from arbitration clauses.
In business, Americans have the right to get what they bargained for - it is the law of the land. Mandatory arbitration plus caps on damages in tort cases fly in the face of that basic right. 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.
So it is that the arbitration clauses aren't even being put directly into the contract. People have the absolute right to know and be informed about arbitration clauses. See how they are being informed? One of the many wise lessons to be learned from this excellent film.
A few exemplary cases are documented in the film: 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 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. 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. WATCH IT. 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 cell phone account, credit cards, insurances, who knows?!
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. Your disgust will do a 180 after you learn what you need to learn here.
No more hot coffee!