Hot Docs ’11: Hot Coffee

Posted: May 5, 2011 in Film Reviews, Hot Docs
Tags: , , , , ,

Still from Hot CoffeeDuring the recession, Canada was shielded from much of the collapse experienced by other countries because of its stricter bank laws. After watching Hot Coffee, one can only hope the same vigilance will protect us from the corporate greed screwing American citizens at every turn. Everyone knows about the woman who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot, but you couldn’t ever guess the truth of the whole story or the level of democratic corruption involved. Director Susan Saladoff, a 25-year trial lawyer and first-time filmmaker, divides the film into four sections, using a different case to demonstrate the issues in each one.

The “hot coffee” incident has become a part of our popular culture with references on late night talk shows, in music, on The Simpsons and with an entire episode of Seinfeld dedicated to it. But few actually know the true story about Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who was in the passenger seat of a parked car when her coffee cup collapsed under hot temperatures, spilling near boiling coffee in her lap and causing severe burns which required multiple skin grafts. When McDonald’s refused to offer more than $800 to cover her medical costs, she sued.

The reason we only know the surface of the story is because it was used as the poster case in a PR campaign to regulate U.S. civil courts. Big business was attempting to pass “tort reform” that would  cap the punitive damages people could be awarded in a lawsuit, as well as limit the types of suits that could be filed. We’ve all heard of the “frivolous lawsuit” because it’s a market-tested buzz word used to ensure this legislation would receive mass approval. The Gourleys were victims of the cap when their award in a malpractice suit, which would have covered their disabled son’s care for the rest of his life, was cut to five per cent.

The documentary also explores the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s push to ensure the majority of elected judges in any given state’s Supreme Court would be business-friendly. This means that nearly 100 per cent of appeals are found in favour of the defending companies. Oliver Diaz was a Supreme Court justice, but not one of the ones supported by the Chamber so they went to great lengths and expense to ensure he didn’t keep his seat.

Another step being taken by companies to limit lawsuits is a clause in every contract, including credit card, cell phone, realtor and employment, which states your only recourse for compensation or justice is “mandatory arbitration.” This means the accused will hire an arbitration firm that will appoint an arbitrator to hear the case behind closed doors and render a definitive verdict. The odds are the arbitrator will side with the company rather than risk losing repeat business. When Jamie Leigh Jones was working overseas in Iraq, she was housed in a men’s barrack then drugged and brutally raped by her co-workers. It seemed her only chance at justice would be a trial, but she couldn’t sue because she had unknowingly agreed to mandatory arbitration in her contract.

There are many talking heads to address the various subjects discussed, but none of the story’s “villains” agreed to comment. In addition, a group of interviews were conducted to illustrate how misinformed and/or unaware the general public is in regards to most of these issues. There are many lessons to be learned in Hot Coffee – and in case you missed any of them, Saladoff does a recap at the film’s end. Even though the legislation is not applicable in Canada, the narrative is still a horrifying revelation and a genuine reminder to be vigilant.

Hot Coffee is playing as part of Hot Docs on Tuesday, May 3 at 7 pm at the Royal Cinema and Thursday, May 5 at 1:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox.


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