Hot Coffee, a documentary directed by Susan Saladoff, was recently shown around the State of Alabama at law schools and legal organization events. It also had selected showings at some movie houses. The documentary chronicles an actual lawsuit that brought tort reform to the forefront of political campaigns, and propaganda fed to the media by Corporate America. That case is Stella Liebeck v. McDonalds. While most Americans are familiar with the “McDonald’s Coffee Case,” and most likely equate that case with frivolous lawsuits, it’s become quite obvious that few actually know very much – if anything – about the facts giving rise to the lawsuit.
Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, was riding with her nephew when they purchased a cup of coffee from the McDonald’s drive-thru. Her nephew pulled into a parking spot so that Stella could put cream and sugar in the coffee. When Stella lifted the lid of the cup, the coffee spilled all over her lap and legs, causing severe burns. The coffee was as hot as radiator water in a car after driving. It was McDonald’s policy to keep the coffee at that extremely high temperature. During the trial, it was discovered that McDonald’s had received over 700 prior complaints of similar coffee spills and injuries.
This case sparked a media-fueled political frenzy calling for tort reform. The documentary discusses three types of tort reform. The first is capping damages. To illustrate how caps work, the documentary tells the story of twins: one healthy and one with brain damage. One of the twins suffered brain damage when the doctor failed to deliver the babies according to the standard of care. The Life Care Plan for the baby showed that the family would need $6 million to take care of him for the rest of his life. The jury awarded the family $5.6 million, but the award was capped at $1.25 million. The documentary notes that a cap on damages takes away the power of the jury and gives it to legislative bodies.
The documentary then looks at “court reform” as a form of so-called tort reform. As an example, the documentary reviews the prosecution of Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice who was maliciously prosecuted when he won an election despite the fact that millions of dollars were pumped into his opponent’s campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an entity dedicated to protecting the interests of huge corporations.
Finally, the documentary discusses the impact of mandatory arbitration clauses on the civil justice system. It gives the example of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who signed an employment contract with Halliburton, in her quest to help with Operation Iraqi Freedom. Jamie was told when hired that she would be housed with other women, but when she arrived in Iraq, she was bunked with 400 men. She was sexually harassed, assaulted, and raped while working for Halliburton despite her requests to be moved. Jamie could not pursue her civil claims against Halliburton in a court of law because of a mandatory arbitration clause tucked into the employment contract. When she signed her employment contract, she never anticipated that she would have to arbitrate Halliburton’s liability for its employees’ horrendous actions and would be denied access to the courts.
The documentary seeks to shed light on the true nature of the civil justice system. That system is not one of frivolous lawsuits and unlimited jury awards. Instead, it’s a system that seeks justice for all concerned. The truth is our judicial system utilizes one of the greatest entities ever created, and that’s the jury. Without our jury system, corporations would police themselves and would never be held accountable for their actions. The right to trial by jury in civil disputes was considered to be so important by our forefathers that it was guaranteed to all Americans by way of the 7th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution! That’s why the truth about the jury system in America must be made available to the public.
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