Teaneck law firm held a free movie screening that delved into the topics of civil justice and tort reform. The documentary “Hot Coffee” was screened at and was followed by a question-and-answer segment with director Susan Saladoff.
“Hot Coffee” derives its name from the lawsuit in which Stella Liebeck, of Albuquerque, N.M., sued McDonald’s after hot coffee spilled onto her lap. Viewers who may not have known all the facts with the case learned that Liebeck, who was 79 years old, suffered third-degree burns and nearly died from her injuries after struggling to remove the lid on the cup so she could add some cream and sugar. The accident occurred while the car was parked, and Liebeck was in the passenger seat.
As highlighted in the movie, this case became the source of numerous jokes and parodies and eventually became synonymous with the term “frivolous lawsuit,” even though Liebeck, who died in 2004, and her family said she only sought payment for medical bills not covered by Medicare.
The film also broached the topics of state-mandated caps on jury awards, campaigns to unseat judges opposed to tort reform, and mandatory arbitration clauses.
"We only have three branches of government. We have our executive branch, our legislative branch, and we have our courts. It's one of our balances of power," Saladoff said. "And most people know that our executive branch and our legislative branch are influenced by power and money, but most people don't understand that our courts also have been taken over by power and money mostly by large corporate interests who want to limit access to the court system so that they're not held accountable."
Saladoff had been practicing law for 25 years when she stopped to make “Hot Coffee,” her first feature-length movie. She is listed as a founder and past president for the national organization Public Justice, which states on its website that it handles cases that will make a difference in the public interest.
“She’s very smart, and she’s one of those people who went to law school to fight a fight, and the fight wasn’t for big corporations; the fight was for the little guy, and that’s what she’s been involved with,” said Garry Salomon, a managing partner at Davis, Saperstein & Salomon.
Salomon said that after seeing “Hot Coffee,” he felt compelled to share its message with the community.
“We decided that it was an issue that the public needs to be aware of – how this McDonald’s case had been distorted by the insurance industry and how the public has been poisoned about a lot of different things when they hear the words ‘tort reform.’ They think that’s something good for the public and good for the consumer, whereas right now tort reform just takes away rights of the consumer,” Salomon said. “It shuts the courthouse doors closed, gives insurance companies more profit, and it protects the insurance premium that they collect – that’s what tort reform is all about.”
The film featured interviews with average citizens and explained the definition of tort: It’s an act that causes harm.
Davis, Saperstein & Salomon showed the film “Sicko” by director Michael Moore a few years ago. Panel guests included medical professionals from the community.
“We think that being a lawyer in a town doesn’t mean it’s just a place where we come to work,” said Salomon, adding that his firm is open to hosting more events like this in the future. “We want to do whatever we can for the community, whether it’s hiring local people, educating the people of the town as far as current legal issues, and giving back.”
After the screening, Saladoff fielded questions from the audience.
The topic of mandatory arbitration clauses was brought up a few times because of its prevalence in contracts from banks, credit cards and cell phones. This type of clause binds both parties to seek resolution outside of the court system.
When asked if it was legal, Saladoff said that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is legal.
“And not only is it legal, now corporations are also putting in contracts a ban on our ability to file class-actions, so that when you sign a contract for a consumer good, you’re also signing away your ability to bring a class-action … which is the ability for all of us to sue in one case as a collective,” she said.
When asked how to circumvent this clause, Saladoff stated that there are contracts in which people can try to negotiate out the arbitration clauses, such as in mortgage contracts, real estate contracts, financial contracts, gym memberships and car loans.
“In many contracts you cannot,” she said. “There is a bill pending before the House and the Senate that’s called the Arbitration Fairness Act. If you are passionate about this issue and you want to get these things out of our contracts, you need to get your congressperson and your senator to vote for the Arbitration Fairness Act.”
In the end, Saladoff said she hopes the movie creates a meaningful debate among people on both sides of the issue. She said that the response has been mostly positive from liberals and conservatives. She said the film was even “embraced” by a Tea Party group that discussed aspects of the film on their blog.
“I try not to make it a partisan film,” Saladoff said. “I know that there’s partisanship in that there are Republican presidents saying one thing and Democratic presidents saying something else, but what the film is about is our constitutional rights.”