Film Review: Hot coffee (2011)
Who knew that one cup of excessively hot coffee was going to inspire such a legal frenzy as the one Stella Liebeck managed to spill 19 years ago.
Hot Coffee is cont completely focus on the Liebeck case but actually a combination of four stories, that are designed to exemplify the problematic nature of the pretty mundane topic of tort reform. This (in)famous case of the woman who was awarded the ridiculous sum 2.7 million dollars after being burned by McDonald’s coffee she spilt on herself, is used to show how media representations can severely alter the public opinion and how these distortions, rather than the underlying facts, are being used to rally cries for partisan agendas.
Hot Coffee starts by exposing the central myths of the McDonalds case, which was that it involved a elderly woman who spilled coffee on herself while stupidly trying to drink while driving. In actual fact what happened was, Liebeck an active robust woman who had just retired a couple of months earlier and was the passenger in the car that was parked when the event occurred. But what was shocking was the extent of the burns, they were absolutely horrendous and required major skin grafts. The photos of the injuries were pretty horrifying. What is of not how ever, is the fact that McDonalds had received over 700 previous complaints about the temperature of their coffee and had decide no action needed to be taken.
We then pick up the case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska boy who requires a lifetime of care and physical therapy after suffering brain damage due to medical malpractice but was unfortunate enough to be conceived in a state (Nebraska) with a hard cap on damages, illustrates the dangers of liability caps. Two especially strong points made in this segment are that states that enact liability caps do not experience reductions in the cost of malpractice insurance nor medical costs and that costs incurred by victims of malpractice and not covered by damage awards are most often absorbed by Medicaid, meaning any “savings” created by lower judgments are essentially in the form of liability subsidies paid by tax payers. The second point is particularly ironic because a linchpin of tort reform arguments is the claim that frivolous lawsuits (supposedly eliminated by hard caps) are what are driving costs up and making things more expensive for everyone.
The third story is that Oliver Diaz and it frames the issue of judicial elections. The film illustrates how judicial elections on the state level are particularly susceptible to vast spending discrepancies, and political action committees (PACs) funded by the Chamber of Commerce spend huge amounts of money to blanket electorates with negative attack ads. (In Diaz’s case the ads were even repudiated by his opponent yet continued to run by the Chamber of Commerce.) While election laws place caps on what individuals can donate to campaigns, there is no limit to the amount of money PACs can spend. Since 90% of elections are won by the campaign that spends the most, judicial elections are, by their nature, structured to favor candidates who are perceived as pro-business and, hence, receive the most PAC money.
The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who was brutally raped after KBR/Halliburton ignored her pleas that she was being sexually harassed on the job (and forced to live in coed trailers rather than, as she was promised, with other women) frames the film’s final issue, that of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in contracts. In these contracts employees and, increasingly, consumers are required to waive their right to pursue civil relief for any problems that might result in the future and accept instead binding arbitration from an arbiter selected by the company. In one of the question and answer period’s lighter moments, Saladoff recounted receiving a phone call from a programmer at the Sundance Film Festival telling her the documentary had been accepted to that prestigious venue and joking that it had sent all the members of the submissions jury scurrying to read their contracts and discovering to their horror that they all had binding arbitration clauses in their contracts that they had signed unaware of their true meaning. “Well, you know,” she told them, “I had to sign one to submit my film to this competition!”
Hot Coffee for a non Americans maybe a little confusing as the lingo, the corporate influence in Government, it’s all a little bemusing and I am under no illusions that events of a similar nature don’t occur here in the UK. However when its laid out like it is here, all be it maybe a little basis it amazing what and how thing are achieved and how the public will basically eat up the spiel that is put out by the media.
Director: Susan Saladoff
Stars: Joan Claybrook, Oliver Diaz and Joanne Doroshow
Production Co: Group Entertainment, The Hot Coffee, If Not Now Productions