“Opening minds” with a movie about “the McDonald’s coffee case”
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
It’s a case almost everybody knows…or thinks they know…after it became the most talked-about civil case in America. But Susan Saladoff is working to see that what everybody knows about the case are the facts.
Saladoff, an attorney and former president of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice , is directing a feature-length documentary film, “Hot Coffee,” which begins with the story of Stella Liebeck and her lawsuit against McDonald’s. But the film goes beyond that to show “how the civil justice system has been distorted over the years by the media and corporate America,” according to Saladoff.
Stella Liebeck was a passenger in a car when she ordered coffee at the drive-thru window of a McDonald’s in Albuquerque in 1992. When she removed the plastic lid from the styrofoam cup in order to add cream and sugar while the car was parked, the contents of the cup spilled on her lap. The coffee was hot enough to cause third-degree burns on her inner thighs and groin area. Liebeck was hospitalized for more than a week and underwent skin grafts.
She sought $10,000 from McDonald’s, saying the coffee had been served at a dangerous temperature; the company never offered more than $800, so she took the case to court. A jury awarded her $200,000 (reduced to $160,000 because Liebeck was found to be 20 percent at fault) and tacked on $2.7 million in punitive damages (the equivalent of two days of coffee profits for the company). But while that was the number that gained national attention, the punitive award was reduced to $480,000 by the judge. And the exact amount McDonald’s paid is unknown, after the company and Liebeck reached a confidential settlement.
Saladoff said she was initially going to stay away from the case, because “everybody thinks they know about it, you’ll never convince people that what they think they know is wrong.” But she decided to tackle the McDonald’s case head on.
“I’m not trying to change people’s minds,” Saladoff said. “I’m trying to open people’s minds. As lawyers we’ve been so jaded, we think people have been so brainwashed by the ‘tort reform’ movement. But the truth is they’re dying to know the truth. With all these corporate scandals, they see the emperor has no clothes, and people’s minds are finally open to hearing the truth. They’re listening, their minds are not closed.”
Saladoff thinks, in the wake of the recent health care reform debate, in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court‘s Citizens United decision that gives corporations greater ability to fund election campaigns, her movie is “in the perfect place at the perfect time.”
Susan Saladoff didn’t set out to be a filmmaker. Or a lawyer, for that matter. She says she was a “science person” when she started at Cornell University as a biochemistry major intending to go to medical school. But while she was at Cornell she developed an interest in politics and set her sights on law school because she thought it would be the best way to prepare to serve in Congress.
Her career course took a turn when she attended a public interest forum and heard the head of the newly-established Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (now known simply as Public Justice). After graduating from George Washington University Law School she became the organization’s first law clerk and moved on to become a staff attorney and later president. (She remains a member of the group’s board of directors.)
In 1998 Saladoff moved to Ashland, Oregon, as a shareholder in a law firm and litigated cases in medical malpractice, wrongful death and products liability. That led to making her first film in 2001.
“I had a severely brain-injured client and could not find a way to convey the extent of her injury to defense counsel,” Saladoff said. “So I got a video camera and spent three days with her. I used that, along with some old footage and interviews with friends, family and coworkers, to do a 46-minute documentary on her life.” The video helped bring about a settlement.
“I loved the filmmaking part,” Saladoff said. “It was so similar to trying cases, it was very natural for me.”
Saladoff went on to do other films about clients and branched out into comedic videos to show at tribute “roasts.” The more she did, the more she wanted to do. And in 2008, as she approached her 25th anniversary as a lawyer, she decided to take a one-year sabbatical from practicing law to devote herself to filmmaking. “They say do what you know. Well, I love making films. I go to film festivals all the time, and I love documentaries, and I know how the civil justice system is misunderstood by many Americans.”
Her original concept was a movie titled “Dis-Torted: Has Justice Been Sold?” She went so far as to write an outline for it, but after she went to the Sundance Film Festival and “watched a lot of films,” she thought, “No one will come to see a movie called ‘Dis-Torted.'” But she thought the title “Hot Coffee” would attract interest and decided to use the McDonald’s case as the jumping-off point for her exploration of the civil justice system and how corporate interests have worked to influence public opinion.
“As a member of the American Association for Justice (the national group that advocates for trial lawyers and their clients) for 26 years, I’ve been pleading for public education to be a higher priority,” Saladoff said. “We’ve won a lot of battles in legislatures, supporting or opposing bills, but we’re losing the hearts and minds of the public, the people who sit on juries and vote.
“People have been brainwashed into thinking the justice system is broken, with out-of-control juries and frivolous lawsuits. Millions of dollars have been spent to make them feel that way.”
Saladoff noted how in the mid-’90s, after “tort reform” passed by Congress under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich‘s “Contract With America” was vetoed by President Clinton, advocates decided to take the battle for change to the state level. “They were successful at passing legislation that would then be declared unconstitutional,” Saladoff said. “So Karl Rove came up with the idea to take over the state supreme courts. It started in Texas and then went to Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia…all those courts bought and paid for by Corporate America.”
Saladoff will tell that story in “Hot Coffee.” She’ll also “put a face” on victims of malpractice whose compensation is reduced by laws that cap damage awards, and she’ll go into the case of Jamie Leigh Jones–a Halliburton employee who says she was gang-raped by coworkers in Iraq–as an example of the hazards of mandatory arbitration for disputes that should be settled by a jury. “People are literally giving away their constitutional rights every single day,” Saladoff said. “In almost every contract they’re signing away their rights by agreeing to arbitration.”
Saladoff and her crew spent 2009 shooting 67 hours of film for “Hot Coffee” at various locations across the country. The film is now being edited by Cindy Lee, who has edited an Academy Award-nominated documentary. Saladoff said a rough cut should be finished in two months, with the finished product completed by the end of the summer.
The feature-length film will be submitted for possible inclusion in film festivals, including Sundance. From there Saladoff hopes to arrange theatrical distribution, a speaking tour at law schools and universities, and “house parties” across the country where DVDs of the film would be shown.
She said she’s now traveling “all over” to show a 26-minute trailer for the movie to raise the money needed to finish it. (The movie is being produced by a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and all donations are 100% tax deductible.) In the meantime, Saladoff has gone back to practicing law part-time. “I need the health insurance,” she said.
Here’s a three-minute taste of “Hot Coffee”:
For more about “Hot Coffee,” go to the movie’s web site at http://hotcoffeethemovie.com/
There is also a Facebook fan page for the film at http://www.facebook.com/hotcoffeethemovie