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Hot Coffee The Movie: Is Justice Being Served?

Is Justice Being Served? This question, in the context of the infamous McDonalds Coffee case, is more than a clever play on words; it is an interesting question to ask when one raises or discusses the case and the assault launched on the civil justice system that became a by-product of its’ verdict.

I have recently been in contact with Susan Saladoff, who is directing (and trying to raise money to produce) an important movie about our civil justice system and the infamous case that launched pro-business, anti-consumer attacks on it. I was permitted to view a short version of the film and it is a terrific eye-opening experience for “pro-justice” supporters, like me, but, especially, for those casual observers who consider the case an example of “lawsuit abuse”. “Hot Coffee ” will be produced by not-for-profit 501(c)(3) entity, thus, all donations to the film completely tax-deductible.

There is almost no one in America who has not heard of the case and the woman who spilled coffee on herself and ‘collected millions’. The case became a poster child for the concept of ‘frivolous lawsuits’ and the injured woman, Stella Liebeck, became a symbol for outrageous and frivolous lawsuits in America; the “Stella” Awards, created by anti-justice, pro-big business forces, are given to the most outrageously frivolous lawsuits filed in a given year. Jerry Seinfeld devoted an episode of his famous show to ridicule the case; Kramer sues Java World after spilling a café latté on himself while trying to get a seat in a movie theater. Leno,
Letterman and others comedians have made jokes about the case, over the years.

But, is the case ridiculous? If so, why did a jury award $2.9 million dollars to 79 year old Stella, after a seven-day trial in 1994? Was McDonald’s caught off guard and, simply, out-lawyered? Was the verdict fair? Why is this case still talked about after so many years?

The best answer is that the case is completely mis-characterized by the press and misunderstood by the public. Pro-business tort-reformers have seized on this to develop their absurd, but effective, campaign about abuses in the civil justice system. They use the case to depict United States civil courts as places where people hit the lottery by filing ‘frivolous’ cases.

The 26 minute “short version” of the documentary, reveals what really happened to Stella; we meet her grandson (he was the driver of the car, not Stella, one of many common public misconceptions). We find out that the vehicle was not moving at the time of the accident; we see and hear from her doctor about the severe injury she suffered and see pictures of the grotesque permanent scarring on her inner thighs. The lawyers and several jurors are interviewed. We learn about the agenda of the tort-reform groups to create a public perception of out of control “lawsuit abuse” and how this misnomer affects the lives of everyday Americans. We discover who is funding this effort to restrict the public’s access to the court system and will see and hear about other examples of so-called “frivolous” lawsuits. We learn the pocketbook motives of the tort-reformers. Political scientists, law school professors and consumer advocates are all interviewed. The film will demonstrate how the media was manipulated and used (a phenomenon that continues to this day). Most important of all, however, is the fact that the film exposes the political agenda of the tort-reform movement.

What is that agenda, you ask? To prevent citizen access to the court system and to immunize big corporations from civil liability. Tort-reformers seek to limit amounts of recovery for legitimate and serious grievances by lobbying legislatures into placing caps on the amounts of money that victims can receive in court in many states, or, in some instances, to enact laws that prevent people from receiving their day in court, barring them from simple civil justice. Fine print on credit card contracts, for example, prevent people from court system access, in favor of restrictive arbitration. Why the deception? Money, of course! Tort-reformer big business interests want to keep more money and prevent seriously injured people from being appropriately compensated. This effort has never been about ‘frivolous’ cases; it has always been about serious cases worthy of serious compensation.

America: See this important movie; contribute to its production, and decide for yourself whether the McDonalds case was serious or frivolous, whether our justice system already has appropriate checks and balances against the filing of frivolous cases, and whether there is any justification for reforms that restrict the average American citizen’s access to justice. Lawsuit Financial will continue to fight for civil justice and access to the civil justice system for all Americans.

Here is the production team of this important film:

SUSAN SALADOFF (Director) has practiced law for twenty-five years, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence, primarily in the area of medical malpractice. She is licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Oregon and began her career as a public interest lawyer with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, now known as Public Justice, an organization that, for the last 25 years, has been at the forefront of keeping America’s courthouse doors open to all. She has been a board member for many years, and served as its 20th national President. She is a member of the American Association for Justice, the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, and the American Board of Trial Advocates. Her peers have recognized her as an Oregon Super Lawyer in 2006, 2007 and 2008. She is a graduate of Cornell University and George Washington University Law School, and has frequently lectured at the state and national levels in the areas of trial advocacy and medical malpractice. She has also produced, directed and edited several short documentaries involving clients for use at trial and in settlement.

CINDY LEE (Editor) – Credits include No End In Sight (Oscar nominee 2007, New York Film Critics Circle 2007 Best Documentary, Sundance Special Jury Prize 2006), Hotel Gramercy Park (Tribeca Film Festival 2008) and Manhattan, Kansas (SXSW Film Festival 2006). She was an additional editor on Swing State and an assistant editor on Half Nelson. Her television credits include: The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious, a PBS series narrated by Brad Pitt.

MARTINA RADWAN (Director of Photography), DP on Ferry Tales, a film that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. She also recently completed filming a private project for Martin Scorcese as well as the feature Flannel Pajamas, which premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and which Roger Ebert called “one of the wisest films I can remember about love and human intimacy.” Recently, Martina shot William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, which premiered at Sundance 2009 and was picked up by Arthouse Films for a mid-2009 theatrical release.

CARLY HUGO (Producer), founding partner of The Group Entertainment, a NYC film production and talent management company. She was the Co-Producer of Peter and Vandy, starring Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, which premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival 2009. She was an Associate Producer of Loggerheads (Sundance ’05) and the Executive Producer of Buick Riviera (Cannes L’Atelier, Best Feature Film at Sarajevo ’08). Carly is the Producer of The War Boys, starring Peter Gallagher and Victor Rasuk, and the Co-Producer of Beautiful Darling, a documentary about Warhol superstar Candy Darling, which are both currently in post-production. She has three feature films in development. She is Executive Director of At Play Productions, a NYC theater company, and is the producer of the 24 Hour Plays Off-Broadway. She holds a B.A. in Film Studies from Columbia University.

If you are interested in contributing to this important project, please contact CARLY HUGO, Producer 212-868-5233,, or SUSAN SALADOFF, Director 541-941-7507, Above all, when the film is completed, see it! Tell your friends about it! Support pro-justice causes and join Lawsuit Financial in working to destroy the myths of the tort-reformers.

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