where the writers are
Filmmaker and attorney Susan Saladoff

Set your sites (or your DVR) for HBO during July and August (or On Demand) for the documentary Hot Coffee. It will change your perception of justice in America as well as how you sign contracts. My son and I saw it by accident at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. We couldn’t get into Drive, starring Ryan Gosling, and Hot Coffee had seats and was about to start. We didn’t know it was a documentary. It opened our eyes.

The film first focuses on the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case where an older woman spilled hot coffee on herself and won millions of dollars. It made most Americans think the court system was out of whack and that we had to have “tort reform,” whatever that was. That’s because that’s what McDonald’s, other corporations, and certain politicians with agendas wanted you to think.

The film shows what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself. It also explains why punitive damages exist—to help motivate big companies to make things safer for people. We certainly want toys safe for children and would get upset if a Happy Meal toy started injuring or killing kids.

 The same happened with the coffee. Stella wasn’t the first to be burned. McDonald’s itself had a thick file on over 700 people who’d been seriously burned by their coffee. That’s because as a matter of policy, the coffee had to be served at a minimum of 180 degrees, which will burn flesh after a second or two. Her coffee severely burned her legs, and she required skin grafts.  If you want to see a clip of the film and the case, click here.

In the aftermath of the case, citizens by the hundreds of thousands voted away their rights in the mistaken belief they were improving the system. What’s probably been the most harmful is in healthcare where many states have imposed caps in healthcare lawsuits. Rather than have individual cases be decided on the evidence, the true harm and costs, caps have been imposed, saving insurance companies money and leaving many citizens in the lurch.

Such laws have had no effect on healthcare premiums. It’s also changed the entire balance of the court system.

The  newest major legal hurdle for average Americans, which the film examines, is the clause in contracts that sends disputes automatically to binding arbitration. Such clauses appear in any credit card contract you agree to, and they appear more and more in employment contracts. The clauses typically let the employer choose the arbitrator—who typically wants to be hired again by the company. Which way do you think they’ll rule?

Such is the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, highlighted in the film.  She had been working for  Halliburton in Texas when she went to Iraq at age nineteen to work for the company, who put her up in barracks full of men. When she complained, the company said they’d look into it, but two days later, she was drugged and gang-raped by her coworkers and then locked in a shipping container until the company could figure out what to do. A sympathetic guard let her use a cell phone, which led to the State Department coming to her rescue.

Because she and her coworkers were American citizens working in Iraq in wartime conditions, criminal charges couldn’t be imposed against her attackers. She couldn’t bring it to court because of the arbitration clause. It’s taken an act of Congress to allow this specific case to be heard. In fact, the case is being heard in court this week, nearly seven years after the incident.

The filmmaker, Susan Saladoff, had been a trial lawyer specializing in public justice for 25 years when she felt she had to show people how they were losing their rights and power more and more in the justice system.

I’ve come to realize Big Brother isn’t so much the government but the large corporations whose interests supersede individuals’ rights and needs. I stood on McDonald’s side before I saw this film, which goes to show, one needs to hear both sides—which is what any trial is about.

See the film and see if I’m wrong.

(Christopher Meeks's new novel is Love At Absolute Zero, about a physicist who gets tenure and now wants a wife. He's determined to find one in three days using the Scientific Method.)