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June 25, 2011 4:49 PM

Q&A: Susan Saladoff, Producer and Director of "Hot Coffee"

Posted by Victor Li

"Hot Coffee," a documentary premiering Monday, June 27, on HBO, is not quite what it seems.

The film, produced and directed by medical malpractice attorney-turned-filmmaker Susan Saladoff, takes a critical look at America's civil justice system. While it purports to correct what she believes are long-held misconceptions about Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, the infamous 1994 case involving a spilled cup of hot coffee, the documentary goes well beyond that.

Saladoff starts with the McDonald's case, revisiting the wave of hostility toward plaintiffs and jury verdicts that followed after Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.86 million by a New Mexico jury (the award was subsequently reduced by the trial judge; the parties ultimately settled for a confidential amount). The film interviews Liebeck's relatives (the plaintiff passed away in 2004), and then sets off to explore the forces that Saladoff believes are undermining the country's civil justice system: caps on damages, judicial campaign contributions, and mandatory arbitration clauses. All this, Saladoff argues, has severely restricted the ability of ordinary people to bring civil actions.

In addition to introducing the viewer to several such cases, "Hot Coffee" incorporates "man on the street" interviews with Americans about the issues central to the film. Throughout, Saladoff's provocative, unambiguous point of view directs the conversation: these everyday people have seen their legal rights whittled away without even knowing it, and with little control over their own circumstances.

The Am Law Daily spoke with Saladoff about making "Hot Coffee" and the actions she hopes her film will stir up.

Why did you decide to make this movie?
People have such a completely wrong perception about the civil justice system. I waited for years for someone to make a documentary like this, and no one did. Finally, I decided to do it myself. In fact, that's where the name of my production company, "If Not Now Productions," came from. 

What were some obstacles, whether financial or technical, that you encountered while making the film?

Well, raising money is never fun, no matter what you're doing. I basically raised money one person at a time. I had house parties where I showed the film to different people and pitched it to them. I didn't really find the rest of it to be difficult. I have a belief system that if you think something will be hard, it will be. I actually loved the filmmaking process. For the technical aspects, I surrounded myself with experienced filmmakers and let them handle it.

How did your experience as a lawyer help you in making this film?

I've never made a film before, but I knew how to tell a story and how to tell it through other people. It was like trying a case. My subjects were like my clients, I used experts in the film just like I would use experts on a case. Using archival information in the film was like using exhibits in court.... Everything I did as an attorney brought me to making this film. One thing people, including my producer, have commented on is that when I would interview people for the film, I would get the information more readily because I'm used to asking people questions. I didn't take very long interviews. When I knew I had it, I had it.

In your opinion, what is the biggest misconception about the McDonald's case?

That [Stella Liebeck] was driving the car, she wasn't very seriously injured, and won millions of dollars--all of which are absolutely false. In fact, I use a clip of Jane Pauley reporting on NBC Nightly News that [the plaintiff] was injured while driving. This is NBC Nightly News we're talking about!  

You spend a lot of time talking about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its campaign to bring about tort reform. Can you talk about the success of that effort and why, in your opinion, the group has been able to keep the issue alive as a political talking point?

I think they've been extremely successful and they've kept it alive because of how much money they have to spend. This is the one issue that galvanizes corporations from all over the country because of how it affects big business. It's the one issue that transcends all different types of businesses. They can join together on this one effort and can do it with their dollars. Meanwhile, consumers and victims don't have the money to combat the chamber's public relations campaign.

No one likes being sued, and lawyers (particularly plaintiffs lawyers) often come across as unsympathetic. Considering the effectiveness of the chamber's strategy, did lawyers do a poor job of presenting their side?

Probably one of the biggest detriments for plaintiffs lawyers was advertising--when people see lawyers advertise on the sides of buses or on TV, I think people don't necessarily respect that. What's interesting is that everyone wants to complain about lawyers until they need one. Once they get hurt, then they go and get a lawyer. Trial lawyers have become demonized and that was part of the PR campaign. When I used to try cases, I would often have to ask juries if they had heard of the McDonald's case, and assuming they had a bad impression of the case, I'd have to distinguish my case from the McDonald's case. Hopefully lawyers will now ask jurors: "How many people have seen the movie 'Hot Coffee?'" during voir dire.

For most people, the forced arbitration clauses will probably have the biggest impact on their day-to-day lives. What can consumers do to protect themselves and their rights from being diluted by such contracts? Or can they?

There are some contracts where you can actually cross out the arbitration clause and negotiate to take it out. But there are plenty of contracts where we don't have a choice. The only solution is to get legislation passed. Currently, the Arbitration Fairness Act is pending in both houses of Congress. I would urge people to contact their [representatives] and say that we need this law passed because these aren't fair contracts. We don't really have a choice when we sign them. What are you going to do? Not have a cell phone? Not get a car loan? Jamie Leigh Jones needed a job. What was she going to do? These are basically adhesion contracts, and what's worse is that the courts uphold them. Look at the recent AT&T Mobility decision by the Supreme Court which allows corporations to ban class actions in contracts. When we have small amounts of money being unfairly taken from us, we often can't access the courts. That's why we need class actions, but that's gone now.

What do you hope people will take away from this film?

How important the civil justice system is to us and how we need to keep the courthouse doors open.

 

RELATED ARTICLE FROM THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

'Hot Coffee': Cup of Cheer for Plaintiffs June 20, 2011

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Corrected spelling of site!
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