Review: Hot Coffee

· Joanthan Poritsky

Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee may be 2011’s biggest “issues” documentary thus far. The title comes from one of the most notorious civil lawsuits in recent history, the 1992-1994 case of Stella Liebeck, then a 79-year-old woman who sued McDonald’s after she spilled hot coffee on herself. Liebeck became a punchline after a court awarded her $2.7 million in punitive damages. The case brought so-called “litigious lawsuits” to the national stage and set off two decades of reform which have in many ways crippled our access to the civil courts. Collectively, we all bought into the story that Liebeck took advantage of the system, but did she?

Hot Coffee is not an exposé into the heat of McDonald’s coffee. In fact, the Liebeck case is only covered in the first 20 minutes or so of the film. That’s all it will take to convince viewers that the case was far from litigious. Liebeck required skin grafts on her upper thighs and racked up medical bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. As it turns out, McDonald’s training materials instructed employees to keep the coffee at 180 to 190 degrees. Worse, the company had received about 700 complaints about burns from their coffee and had done nothing about it. So Liebeck took the company to court and won. The jury decided punitive damages would act as a warning to the corporation to change its practices, which they ultimately did. Saladoff starts from the beginning and reexplains our justice system to audiences. This may seem like overkill but it’s vital to the point of the film. Our opinions about the civil court system have been tainted so severely that most viewers will be mystified by how it works and how it could work.

The film is broken up into four sections. Part one ,of course, is about Stella. The second section is far more heartbreaking. It revolves around the Gourleys, a Nebraska family who was awarded $5.6 million in a malpractice case. Due to their doctor’s negligence, one of their twins was born with severe brain damage. Once the jury awarded them the amount, which would have covered their son Colin’s care. The problem? Nebraska had caps on lawsuit damages in place set at $1.25 million. Ironically, unable to afford Colin’s medical bills, the Gourleys had to apply for Medicaid. In the end, the taxpayers are paying for a doctor’s gross negligence even though a jury decided otherwise.

Next up is the story of Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi Supreme Court justice who was considered anti-business (by businesses). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran a massive smear campaign against Diaz, spending untold amounts of money to get him booted from the court. When that didn’t work and he actually won the election, they drowned him in lawsuits, charging him with accepting bribes and tax evasion. He was acquitted on everything they threw at him, but not only did it mar his reputation, it also kept him from serving on the bench. Around three years of his term had been spent defending his name instead of serving the people of Mississippi. All because he wasn’t considered friendly to big business.

Finally, the most heart-wrenching story of the film involves the ongoing case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a former Halliburton employee who was drugged and brutally raped while working for the company in Iraq. When she arrived there, she found she was to be living in a barrack full of men instead of with other women as she was promised. When she complained the human resources department ignored her. After the rape occurred, Halliburton moved her to a storage container with armed guard outside while they could, presumably, figure out their stance. The story seems almost unimaginable, but what is worse is that Jones’ contract with Halliburton stipulated that any complaints against the company could not be brought to court. Instead she could go to mandatory arbitration. The arbitrator found in favor of Halliburton, which meant that she would have no justice for the incident.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota took up Jones’ plight and introduced an amendment to a 2010 defense appropriations bill which restricts the kinds of situations in which defense contractors can use mandatory arbitration. The bill passed, and shortly thereafter it was decided that Jones could in fact seek her day in court. The civil lawsuit is now underway. The senate hearings, which appear in the film, are some of the most compelling footage I’ve ever seen from within the Capitol. It is relatively simple cinematographically, but the angle cinematographer Martina Radwan chooses is far more interesting than those normally used by C-SPAN and the like. Editor Cindy Lee, whose biggest claim to fame is editing the 2007 documentary No End in Sight, deftly slices the scene as Jones appears before the Senate. It’s the kind of thing we almost never get to see: plainspoken heroism in Washington. If we could see our goverment from this angle all of the time, perhaps far fewer people would feel disaffected about the system.

There is no question that Hot Coffee is an emotionally charged film. Its title is provocative enough, but it doesn’t do the film justice. This isn’t about one case but many. Moreover, this isn’t about the plight of few but the suffering of us all. As the film points out, the justice system in this country is the only branch of government that every American has access to. You can write to your senators and congresspeople, or to the President for that matter, but it is only within the courts that the average American can take on an insurmountable force like McDonald’s and win. For a brief period, the pendulum swung on the side of the citizens. Was that such a bad thing? Now, we find ourselves in a time when corporations have begun shutting down our access to the courts.

Whatever your stance on perennially hot button issues like tort reform or caps on damages or even the temperature of a cup o’ joe, Hot Coffee is a film that all Americans should watch. It will start out by changing your mind about Stella Liebeck, and then it will open your eyes to a host of other issues. Hopefully, this can be the kind of film that moves people to action. If Super Size Me could eradicate the phrase “Super Size” then surely something could from Saladoff’s film.

Hot Coffee premieres tonight, Monday, June 27, 2011, at 9 p.m. on HBO. For more information visit the film’s official website.