Hot Coffee (Saladoff, 2011)

Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee is the documentary that Inside Job tried so hard to be, informative, educational about a complex subject without being reductive, partisan without being propaganda, and, ultimately, persuasive.  While it may seem remarkable that a directorial debut from a former lawyer could stand the comparison to an Academy Award winning documentary, Saladoff pointed out to audiences at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival that years of reading juries taught her how to craft a narrative out of a case and present it in a clear, comprehensible way.

Hot Coffee is actually four stories, each designed to exemplify some problematic aspect of the seemingly mundane subject of tort reform. The (in)famous case of the woman who was awarded 2.7 million dollars after being burned by McDonald’s coffee is used to show how media representations can severely alter our opinions and how these distortions, rather than the underlying facts, are used as rallying cries for partisan agendas.

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!”

If Hot Coffee has a weakness as a film it may be in Saladoff’s lawyer’s tendency to hammer a point home that has already been made, making it feel like it could use a slight trim in the editing room. Then again, the director spoke thoughtfully about the need to give the audience relief from constant flow of information and permission to identify with the occasional person on the street interviewee who could parrot the indignation about the (wrong, it turns out) “facts” of the McDonald’s coffee case but struggled to answer basic questions such as “what is a tort?” or “what is binding arbitration?”

Conversely, one of the places where Hot Coffee actually surpasses Inside Job (or most documentaries, for that matter) is that rather than leaving the viewer overwhelmed and despairing that nothing can be done, it does provide small first steps that those who are persuaded can take. The TAKE ACTION page of the film’s website contains links where consumers can find information about what laws govern their own states, instructions on how to contact local lawmakers, and links to groups such as OpenSecrets.org, which tracks how much money is spent in local elections and where it comes from.

It is a sad reality of our day that the trial lawyer is one of the most stereotyped and satirized figures in contemporary society. There was a moment early in the film where Saladoff is interviewing people on the street about what they knew about this iconic case. Each expressed scorn and ridicule towards the plaintiff who was burned with the coffee, until Saladoff showed them–and us–pictures of the burns and how horrific they were. People stopped laughing then, and I couldn’t help but think of one of the seminal moments in Robert Bolt’s classic play, A Man For All Seasons, when Sir Thomas More chastises an adversary for threating him like a “dock side bully.” A true statesman, he opines, threatens only with the truth. The innocent are not threatened by it, and the guilty are more afraid of it than of any fabrication.

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