Judge Daryl Loomis is 2-2 in negligence suits he's filed against himself.
Is justice being served?
You may remember the 1994 case of Stella Liebeck, the elderly woman from Albuquerque who went through a McDonald's drive-thru for some coffee, spilled it in her lap, and walked away with a $2.5 million dollar judgment from a civil court. You may also remember how Liebeck became a late night laughing stock and a political symbol for frivolous lawsuits for a decade. How much do we really know about the case, though, and was Liebeck just another case of the "jackpot justice" that local news likes to grouse about? Hot Coffee, a documentary from lawyer turned director Susan Saladoff, explores this question by going underneath the surface of what makes up this kind of lawsuit and the extent that companies will go to escape liability.
Like one might expect from a civil trial lawyer, Saladoff presents a tight argument in favor of the civil justice system. With the McDonald's case and three other less famous ones, she presents a lucid and persuasive picture of the effect that tort reform, legislation enacted to cap damages companies are forced to pay from lawsuits, has on individuals who have been harmed. While, on nearly every count, I agree with Saladoff in principle, Hot Coffee just isn't that compelling of a documentary. Each case is presented separately and it runs like an episode of 20/20. For relaying information, the format is fine, but it also makes a film lacking any driving narrative force.
The four segments present a different side of the issue and, in each of them, a human story is used to prove the point. The McDonald's case looks at how the government and the media spin these lawsuits into public outrage over greed, when, in fact, those pulling for tort reform are the greedy ones. The second is the case of a couple pregnant with twins who, because of something as simple as an ultrasound, wound up with one child normal and one with severe disabilities. As a result of tort reform, the ruling they got in their medical malpractice lawsuit was reduced from enough to take care of the child for the rest of his life to an amount that will ensure that taxpayers are paying for his care through Medicaid for decades. The third details the fall of a Mississippi state supreme court justice, who was forced off the bench by the Chamber of Commerce, first through pointed election smear campaigns and, when that didn't work, levying bogus fraud charges against him. Here, she shows how deep into the government and the legal system corporate interests have become. Finally, the story of a woman who worked for Haliburton and was sent to Iraq on a contract job and was raped and imprisoned by her male coworkers. When she tried to sue the company, she found herself at the mercy of a mandatory arbitration agreement, forcing her to settle in front of a judge appointed by Haliburton. This final part is, by far, the most engaging, as it goes into something that few people are aware of; from their cell phone contracts to gym agreements to employment paperwork, we are subject to rules that deny our constitutional right to take people to court for civil damages. It may not be the most popular part of the Bill of Rights these days, but the Seventh Amendment is there for the public's protection and we throw it away with every contract we sign.
Saladoff bolsters her arguments with celebrity appearances from people like Senator Al Franken and novelist John Grisham, but that doesn't add very much. The film is most definitely pointed and one-sided, but it doesn't aspire to be fair as much as it aspires to win its case. It does in spades, but it's an underwhelming film that is often dull and occasionally quite condescending. The issues she presents are exceedingly interesting, but execution is lacking considerably. The human interest stories may tug on people's heartstrings, as Saladoff clearly intends, but it doesn't do a whole lot for me. Instead, I'd like to see more science, more figures, and more evidence. There are actually frivolous lawsuits out there, and the barest acknowledgement of the fact, at least, might have helped greatly.
Hot Coffee comes to us from Docurama in a decent package that is nothing special. The film footage comes from many eras, so the image quality varies greatly. The new footage looks fine and the transfer is generally free of error. The stereo audio mix is average for a documentary, with everything perfectly audible, but with nothing to distinguish it. For extras, we have about thirty minutes of deleted scenes and an interview with the director, where she gets into the backstory for the film.
Saladoff says a lot in Hot Coffee, but I wish she told it better. The stories of these people are worth hearing and the information sheds important light about an issue that is rarely discussed seriously, but the overall narrative isn't as compelling as it could be. It's still worth watching, even for its faults, because of the ideas presented in the documentary.
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