Jun 30, 2011

Hot Coffee: A must-see documentary that will leave you searing

The film Hot Coffee premiered on June 27, 2011 on HBO. An official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker and former trial lawyer Susan Saladoff examines the dangers of tort reform through four stories.

Like the story of Stella Liebeck, the hot coffee lady, the national symbol of frivolous lawsuits, who sued McDonald's over a spilled cup of joe. Remember her? Well Saladoff skillfully uncovers several misperceptions surrounding the suit. Including revealing the gruesome photos of Liebeck’s third-degree burns, which required hospitalization and multiple skin grafts.

And the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, which Saladoff hauntingly recounts.

Twenty years old and working in Baghdad's Green Zone.
Being the female that's harrassed by your male colleagues.
Drugged, assaulted, waking up the next morning, discovering your body naked and severely bruised, with lacerations to vagina and anus, blood running down your leg, pectoral muscles torn.
It gets worse...
Being administered a rape kit that verifyies the assault, then locked in shipping container with armed guards.
It still gets worse...
Denied a day in court.

In 2005, Jamie Leigh Jones worked for Halliburton/KBR. She unknowingly signed a contract that any and all claims against her employer, including all personal injury claims arising in the workplace, must be submitted to binding arbitration instead of to the court system. Which means that her case could only be presented in a private forum in which Halliburton paid for the arbitrator and in which there was no right to appeal.

It was mind-blowing to discover enormous amount of money corporations have spent to get their tort reform messages across. More mind-boggling--how so few people really understand the issue. And never will as long as there are secret arbitrations.

As Dahlia Lithwick reported in Open the Shut Case (Slate, 1/28/10), the best place to trial such allegations is in court:

Halliburton/KBR launched a zealous public campaign to "correct the facts" about the Jones litigation—urging, for instance, that "Ms. Jones' allegation of rape remains unsubstantiated" and that she wasn't locked in a shipping container but rather "provided with a secure living trailer." Apparently KBR fails to appreciate the irony of demanding that all of its counter-facts come to light despite its love for secret arbitration.

Jones's lawsuit will finally be heard in a federal courtroom in Houston, almost six years after the alleged incident.

Whatever your thoughts are on tort reform, after watching Hot Coffee, I am left with a searing impression of the crucial function our civil justice system serves in our democracy.

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