“You tell people you’re making a movie about the legal system, and they’re, like, ‘Yawn, boring,'” says Susan Saladoff, director of “Hot Coffee,” a new documentary that recently screened at AFI and Discovery’s Silverdocs film festival, and makes its television premier Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
How did Saladoff, a lawyer herself, make a movie about tort reform and mandatory arbitration palatable? “Good lawyers are good storytellers,” she says.
The hook of the film is the famous McDonald’s coffee case — you know the one — when Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s for millions and millions in one of those frivolous lawsuits you hear so much about. After profiling the Liebeck case, the movie moves on to examine caps on damages, the problems with elected judges and, finally, mandatory arbitration — when people sign away their rights to sue. Which you’ve probably done, whether you know it or not.
“You cannot get a [cell phone] activated without agreeing to mandatory arbitration. Do you not activate your phone?” asks Saladoff. Most people agree to arbitration, thinking that no reason to sue will ever crop up.
That’s what happened to Jamie Leigh Jones, a former Halliburton employee appearing in the film, who signed a mandatory arbitration contract as a condition of employment. She was then allegedly drugged and raped by colleagues while employed in Iraq. Even though she said the company failed to protect her, she wasn’t able to sue in civil court. (Eventually, the courts decided she could sue, and the case went to trial in Houston last week.)
But it’s the coffee case that gets people interested in the film, particularly those who believe there are too many frivolous lawsuits clogging up our court system.
» Backstory: Cup of Trouble
In 1992, Stella Liebeck’s nephew, Chris, drove her to a local McDonald’s restaurant, where she ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through. After the car was parked, Liebeck placed the cup between her knees so she could add cream and sugar. In pulling the lid off, the entire cup of coffee was spilled across her lap, exacerbated by the sweatpants that she was wearing, which absorbed the hot coffee and held it against her skin.
Image courtesy of HBO