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July 25, 2011 | by  | in Film |
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Hot Coffee

It’s unlikely that you’ve gotten to year 2011 without hearing about Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants, the case of the old woman successfully suing McDonalds’ for millions after she spilled hot coffee on herself. It’s possible that you have opinions about this case. It’s possible that you think it’s a case of frivolous lawsuits gone mad and judicial overreaching.

It’s possible that you don’t know all the facts.

Former lawyer Susan Saladoff uses this case and the myriad of misconceptions surrounding it as the springboard for Hot Coffee, her stylish, full-blooded assault on the American ‘tort reform’ movement. Saladoff starts off picking at the various factual omissions and errors public opinion holds to be gospel (Did you know Liebeck, who wasn’t driving when the coffee was spilled, sustained third-degree burns to her legs and groin due to the coffee? Did you know McDonald’s had previously received over 700 reports of serious coffee-related scalding and yet declined to take action based on this evidence? Did you know that Liebeck initially asked to settle for $20,000 to cover medical expenses and that the oft-quoted sum of$2.7mil was reduced on appeal?). It’s not long, though, before she’s tearing into ‘tort reform’ and its effects on the American civil justice system.

Saladoff doesn’t hold back in attacking the abstract arguments offered by tort reform proponents. She details how the ‘savings’ caps on damages provide consumers rarely eventuate and are outweighed by the incredible unfairness of baselessly limiting the claims of plaintiffs with legitimate grievances; she shows how judicial elections (a concept thankfully alien to NZ) open up the court system to lobbying and blatant bribery at the expense of the individual’s constitutional rights; she exhibits the problems with the increasingly popular system of mandatory arbitration and how the control and secrecy it provides companies leaves it open to wanton abuse. Framing her four points of attack with illustrations that ground the issues in real people and real repercussions, Saladoff paints an alarming, if polemical, picture of a civil justice system under the sway of special interest groups whose actions unforgivably restrict the freedoms and rights of the individual. Hot Coffee is a powerfully effective advocacy piece – biased, perhaps, but the other side’s already run millions of campaigns to get their point across.

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