HBO is on tonight!
What is Hot Coffee? It is a feature documentary by Susan Saladoff about "what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s." Apparently after listening to her interview on the Leonard Lopate Show, I decided that the documentary is about much more than that.
Filmmaker Susan Saladoff, a former public interest lawyer, talks about her documentary “Hot Coffee,” about the McDonald’s coffee case, which continues to be cited as a prime example of how citizens use “frivolous” lawsuits to take unfair advantage of America’s legal system. But is that an accurate portrayal of the facts? The movie looks at the infamous legal battle that began with a spilled cup of McDonald’s coffee and investigates America’s zeal for tort reform, which, Saladoff argues, could restrict the legal rights of everyday citizens and undermine the entire civil justice system.
You can listen to the interview here. Why don't you come back here for for a Hot Coffee Open Thread? But right now why don't you use the time to get friends who never found out the root of tort reform propaganda in America interested in the documentary that will be on HBO at 9 p.m. eastern and pacific and 8 o'clock in central time zones.
While you are helping to create an informed constituency, I'll give a few details about Susan Saladoff's discussion with Leonard Lopate below.
After listening to that interview I'm thrilled about some facts getting into the public eye. Why is it that the media continues to promote outright lies presented by Republicans who represent tort reform? Where is the First Amendment for victims who wind up signing 'gag orders' while the freedom of speech only increases for corporations? What sort of government allows consumers to sign away the right to litigation in customer agreements? Why is the class action suite disappearing? In a nation where the people become more and more regulated, why are we losing our rights in as consumers in a consumer economy?
"Starting in the mid 80's large corporations knew that our civil justice system was starting to be used to hold them accountable and that was not good for profits. So when this case came out which was in August of 1994, President Clinton was in office but the Congress flipped Republican on November of 1994 and Newt Gingrich became the first Republican Speaker of the House in forty years and he had his contract with America. And one of those provisions was tort reform or legal reform.
The facts in this case that has become "sort of the poster child for what's wrong with our civil justice system" are probably well known in progressive circles but worth repeating.
What really happened to the person victimized by McDonald's? The victim in this case was named Stella Liebeck. The facts are that she was seventy-nine years old and while being accused of generating the American example for frivolous lawsuits, it was the first civil suite she ever entered in her life. Stella Liebeck was not trying to drive while opening a cup of coffee. She was a passenger in a parked car being driven by her grandson. There was no cup holder in the car and in the parked car she placed one of those old styrofoam cups with the flap that was almost impossible between her legs on the seat and because the coffee was somewhere between 180 and 190° the cup literally collapsed, causing serious injury.
Not only did McDonald's know that their coffee would burn on contact but they paid out over seven hundred other claims for people who had been burned by hot coffee.
The jury did see photographs of those burns and tonight every household in America that subscribes to HBO will have a chance too.
In the interview Susan Saladoff claims that McDonald's was callous in their testimony. Had Juan Valdez take the witness stand to claim that coffee taste best at that temperature and then admit that coffee could not be consumed at that temperature.
The jury listened to a week's worth of testimony on both sides and awarded her her medical bills and two days of coffee sales from McDonald's, which was a punitive damage. Punitive damages are very rare. They are not given often but given to either deter reckless conduct or to punish a company and ask them to change their behavior and this judge in this case asked them to consider punitive damage.
Even though she got that $2.7 million verdict, the judge reduced it to $480,000. Then McDonald's appealed, they settled and Mrs. Liebeck was subjected to a gag order, then she wasn't able to defend herself when all this misinformation came out to the public.
After Leonard Lopate took a little sidestep about "Supersize Me" and liberal bashing, the interview got very interesting. Susan Saladoff wanted to explore the checks and balances in our system and why those checks that serve the consumer are disintegrating. Who supports damage caps, why they are popular in America and who gains from these caps.
The only time a cap comes into play is after a jury, listening to both sides of the issue, decides that the defendant is responsible and awards a large amount of money. By definition that cannot be a frivolous lawsuit. And yet those are the cases, the most seriously injured people are the ones who cases are being capped. And the insurance companies who are benefiting from these laws all over the country, they don't have a requirement to give their savings back to the policyholders.
Who pays? Well in the cases of serious medical injuries, Medicaid winds up picking up the tab and the taxpayers foot the bill.
There is also a well argued indictment of the U.S. Chambers of Commerce, working their money to get judges who side with consumers off the bench. The fact that doctors have not seen their malpractice insurance go down in states where tort limits became law. A few stories of individuals who got so screwed over by the system are discussed, one that led to the Jamie Leigh Jones Bill. Much light is shed on the arbitration clause that victimized Jamie Leigh Jones and many others who did not have the intervention of a U.S. Senator.
They also discussed who wins when class actions is limited.
Well right now, just a month ago the Supreme Court ruled in the AT&T vs. Conception case that now corporations can put in their contracts a ban on class action. Now most of us it's another term "What does that have to do with me? Why should I care?" So what it means is that when you sign away your rights in these contracts, if you ever have a small claim, let's say you pay your credit card bill and for some reason they charge you a $35 late fee that you don't think you're subject to. You are not going to bring a case for $35 but let's say that do it to two million of us and they made $70 off us. We have no rights as consumers to do anything because we don't have class actions anymore if we sign away these rights. And people need to know that this is happening all over our system.
People do need to know what Susan Saladoff told the radio audience today, what she lived through when she was a practicing attorney and now that she no longer practices law, all she wants to do is open peoples' minds. I'm sure you do too so tell a friend to watch or better invite them over so people become more informed.
I have not see Hot Coffee yet but if Susan Saladoff is half the movie maker that she is a radio interviewee, then people have a good chance to become informed tonight. If the day ever comes that Stella Liebeck becomes an example of cooperate and government maleficence in the public eye instead of the number one example of people getting over on the system, they we will be going places.