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"Hot Coffee" brews a potent look at civil lawsuits

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We've been bamboozled!

That's pretty much the message behind "Hot Coffee" (9 tonight, HBO), a powerful documentary about the distortions of the tort reform movement.

If you're not really clear about what 'tort reform' means, it's OK. You'll see in the film that lots of folks don't, even folks that may have voted for it. Basically, the film looks at the movement around stemming frivolous lawsuits.

Sounds like a good idea, right. But what the documentary shows is that the case that launched the movement wasn't really frivolous -- the famous, much noted 1992 case of the woman who sued McDonald's because its coffee was too hot.

"Hot Coffee" reveals details about the case you probably don't know. Really, all you need to do is see the pictures of the defendant Stella Liebeck's burns, and you'll change your mind about the case. The images are horrifying.

The documentary methodically builds its own case -- that the tort reformers, with the help from a lazy media, used the misinformation about the case to fuel an effort to upend the civil lawsuits against business and hijack your constitutional rights to the court system.

For instance, "Hot Coffee" looks at mandatory arbitration, which means you give up your right to a jury trial. It's more common than you think; check your cellphone or credit card terms. It may seem inconsequential, but then the doc relays the story of Jaime Leigh Jones, who at 19 went to work for Halliburton in Iraq and was raped and beaten by co-workers. Turns out she had signed a contract with a mandatory arbitration clause. That pretty much gave her accused assailants a pass. (Jones kept fighting; her efforts got federal legislation banning those clauses in some cases and a trial this month against Hallliburton.)

If you're a President G.W. Bush and Karl Rove fan or just tired of hearing them be accused of wrongs, you may get annoyed by this film. The president is presented as the Tort Reformer in chief, and Rove (where there's Halliburton, there's Rove) is shown to have spearheaded national efforts that got pro-business justices on state supreme courts. Those effort led to things like caps on damages for medical malpractice. The effects of those caps is revealed is show in the case of Nebraska couple who had twin boys, one of whom is severely disabled because of a doctor's negligence. The jury awarded the family a reasonable $5.6 million, which would have helped a child in need of a lifetime of care. The cap allowed only a little over $1 million, a figure readily eaten up by lawyer fees and medical bills. Now taxpayers will care for him.

The doc can't be called balanced; those accused refused to speak to the filmmakers and the director is a former trial lawyer. (This NYT piece has some of those opposing voices speaking out.) But that doesn't necessarily mean the film isn't accurate.

What it shows is that we, as citizens, aren't paying enough attention, and it's costing us dearly.


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Hot coffee

This is a "must see" for everyone.  I know my eyes were opened.

"Hot Coffee" was scalding

I agree. I just watched the other night and I was *furious* about the whole time. Feel duped.


How come no one ever mentions how lawyers can take 25% or more of the total award - why is this OK?  lets make sure we fairly document all parties to this tragedy! 

lawyers' cut

Doc doesn't present an explanation for that, but the lawyers' cut is a great reason why the cap on damages can hurt.

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About the blogger

Adrienne Johnson Martin would like to have her life turned into an animated cartoon. E-mail Adrienne.