A lawyer’s documentary brings topics to a boil

Lawyer and filmmaker Susan Saladoff appeared at Southwestern Law School this week for a viewing and discussion of her recently released HBO documentary Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served In an audience discussion, she shared why she stopped practicing law briefly to produce the film.

Saladoff (shown at right) had spent 25 years in the civil justice system, working with Public Justice. Her experience in representing plaintiffs in claims of injury and negligence against corporations and individuals made her passionate about the issue of protecting the public’s access to the courts, she said.  She grew especially concerned over the public campaign launched in the media in the mid-1990s to promote what advocates called tort reform, and which, in her view, consisted of constant attacks on the civil justice system.

Hot Coffee focuses on a 1994 New Mexico case that has become notorious among those who cry foul about “frivolous litigation,” as the now legendary lawsuit involved a contentiously sizable award against McDonald’s over a cup of its hot coffee. A jury awarded plaintiff Liebeck almost $3 million in damages for third-degree burns she suffered from that java spilled after its purchase at a McDonald’s drive-thru. The film aims to address what Saladoff sees as misconceptions about the facts of the case. And it goes on to tackle her concern that someone provide the public with information so citizens will act to protect the constitutional right of the people to have access to the courts.

The topic of legal changes — dubbed by some as tort reform or fixes to jury awards and liability lawsuits — always stirs discussions, as it did with the law school audience.

As a measure of just how widespread the mangled reports about the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case reached, consider this comparative international law journal piece on how German media misreport the U.S. tort system, including some notably bad pieces in Germany’s major news outlets on the “McLibel” matter; this law journal publication, by the way, contains a set of some of the better citations online as to what did or did not occur in the Hot Coffee case.

And as further evidence of just how divisive the Liebeck case continues to be, especially to those on either side of the rift about the need for tort reform and changes in civil jury verdicts and awards, well, look at just reviews of Hot Coffee itself: Is it “an eye-opening indictment” that is “impressively polished — and dramatic”   or “provocative” and “sometimes strident” though key for presenting a side less heard? Or is it “essential dishonesty” and “documentarian malpractice?”