TV Review - Hot Coffee

Susan Saladoff provides testimonials from the plaintiffs of four court cases over the past decade or two. The court cases are examples in her argument against tort reform. Saladoff lays out what tort reform is and why it's a bad thing.

The argument begins with Stella Liebeck. Her case was probably the most famous of the four. Liebeck was an elderly woman who sued McDonalds after she accidentally spilled a cup of scolding hot coffee on her lap in one of McDonalds' New Mexico drive-throughs. Liebeck won $2.7 million in punitive damages.

After that, because of a distorted view in the media, incomplete reporting, and people like Seinfeld and Weird Al mocking it, Liebeck's case was the one cited when politicians came along and bashed tort cases.

When a company or an institution does something wrong or does something that results in a person getting hurt, but that something isn't technically illegal, tort cases or civil cases are what plaintiffs use to get justice. Often times, those tort cases can end with juries awarding plaintiffs millions of dollars. Those plaintiffs are generally the victims of medical mistakes or malpractice.

Colin Gourley is the second, such case in this documentary. Gourley was injured due to mistakes made by his mother's OB-GYN. Gourley's mother sued that gynecologist and most likely the hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, where the injury took place. The jury awarded Gourley's family $5.6 million in damages. However, the Gourley family never received that money. Tort reform in Nebraska required a cap on damages, a cap meaning a limit on how much money could be awarded.

The rationale of tort reform is to prevent frivolous lawsuits by greedy people, trying to manipulate the system. But, the Liebeck and Gourley cases represent why that rationale doesn't work. In actuality, Saladoff turns the tables and portrays the companies and corporations pushing for tort reform as the greedy people and as the manipulative ones trying to rig the system. No one could honestly call Liebeck or the Gourley family greedy people. They were simply people who were hurt.

The second half of Saladoff's movie focuses on those greedy and manipulative companies and corporations. Obviously, tort cases cost those companies millions of dollars, so whatever they can do to stop the tort cases is what they'll do. Saladoff illustrates this with the Oliver Diaz story in Mississippi. Diaz was a state supreme court justice who the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republicans attacked because he was sympathetic to torts.

Saladoff ends her movie with the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a young woman who was employed in Iraq, working for Halliburton. Pushing for tort reform to get caps on damages is one thing, but another tactic that Halliburton and other companies used is something called Mandatory Arbitration. The Jones case is a horrendous one and cements how this tactic is utilized to deny people justice and in fact take away their rights.

Saladoff definitely is able to convince using the emotional reactions that anyone would have from hearing the stories of plaintiffs like Jones. Like most documentarians, Saladoff puts human faces and individualizes big and complicated, political issues like tort reform into easy and powerful digests.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated TVPG for themes and some disturbing images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 25 mins.
Available on HBO on Demand.


Popular Posts