I like a documentary that lets me realize how little I know about a subject. Hot Coffee, from director Susan Saladoff, makes that its goal. The film points out the ways certain areas can be information voids for most laypeople (even reasonably educated ones), without us realizing it. Specifically, it talks about the concept of tort reform—and I know many of my law-school-graduate friends will find it abhorrent that I didn’t really know the meaning of the term. I was definitely with the ignorant people-on-the-street in this case. Tort reform…that’s probably good, right? I feel like I’ve been told that’s good…
In (now minimally informed) brief: “tort” is a word for a certain type of wrong done to someone—”a wrongful act, not including a breach of contract or trust, that results in injury to another’s person, property, reputation, or the like, and for which the injured party is entitled to compensation,” according to Dictionary.com. The key bit for the film is those last three words: “entitled to compensation.” If you live in the United States (or if you’ve just seen the “hot coffee” episode of Seinfeld that the film invokes as an example), you’ve probably heard of the concept that money-grabbing, opportunist lawsuits are an epidemic in our free society, wasting time and taxpayer dollars to an extreme. Hot Coffee asserts that the reason we believe this is an epidemic is because corporations and lobbyists have worked long and hard to make sure we think that.
I definitely had an idea in my head of what that famous coffee case was—you know, some lady spilled coffee on herself that OF COURSE was hot, duh, then sued for no good reason, trying to wring money out of a nothing situation. The opening portion of the film lets you hear a lot of opinions about the case, from random citizens who remember the media coverage to the woman-in-question’s daughter, until it shows you some real evidence: pictures of the burns, on the legs of an elderly woman, which are so severe and horrific that I gasped in astonishment. The only thought that will be in the viewer’s head: my God, how hot was that coffee? It’s a good shock value moment. But these images, no matter their enlightenment value, aren’t presented as a be-all, end-all argument that the woman was, in fact, entitled to damages. The point is that there was a case to be argued; the inherent frivolity in our collective memory was manufactured, and used to lobby for laws that would do things like cap the amount of damages juries can award in cases like this, where corporate interests go up against an individual consumer’s experience. And of course, it’s big business that’s doing that lobbying.
The film offers three more case studies of people affected by laws that give businesses the upper hand, even when the side of “right” almost assuredly lies with the citizen. We see a family whose doctor made a series of misinformed decisions that ended in one of their twin sons having permanent brain damage; a Mississippi judge whose campaign for the state Supreme court was sabotaged because he often sided with consumers over businesses; and a woman whose contract with her employer, Halliburton, included a fine-print clause that meant she could not sue in open court under any grounds—even when, four days into her stint as a worker in Iraq, she was drugged and gang-raped by the men she was working and living with. All of these cases are infuriating to hear about. All of them support a different point about consumer and individual rights. We are reminded of the necessity of protecting the system that allows an individual to say “I was wronged,” and let a jury decide fault and compensation. It’s what’s supposed to make our legal system so great, right? But scare enough people with the idea that frivolous lawsuits cost taxpayers money, and they might start voting their own rights away.
If you need to hear a well-argued case from both sides in order to take a documentary like this seriously, you’ll be disappointed here. I don’t think it’s necessarily a documentary’s job to present “balance” if such a goal is never proclaimed or even alluded to. Saladoff is a lawyer who spent twenty-five years representing the victims in cases like these, and her film argues: in the past, you have been told certain things about realities within the legal system; now, here is how that message was distorted from reality, and the information that was withheld from you. For me, that was enough to enter horror mode: “How was I so ignorant?! Where do I get additional reading materials?! How soon can I write my Congressperson?!” I recognize that no 88-minute film can provide a comprehensive look at such a big subject, but it can provide a necessary jolt. And Hot Coffee should be required viewing for everyone who isn’t invincible, and might someday be wronged.
Hot Coffee is screening as a part of the Seattle International Film Festival, at the Harvard Exit theater on June 9th at 7:00 PM and June 11th at 11:00 AM.