Inside D.C. entertainment

Sundance 2011: With 'Hot Coffee,' former D.C. lawyer illuminates McDonald's case

January 28, 2011 - 05:51 PM
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Caution: Contents so hot, they will turn your skin black.

Originally, as a biochemistry major at Cornell University, Susan Saladoff wanted to be a doctor. Problem was, she tells me, "I don't like blood." So she decided instead to be a politician, and went to George Washington University Law School with the hopes of becoming the first woman to represent her Pennsylvania district in the U.S. Senate. "While I was in law school, I went to a public interest forum, and I heard someone say, 'You can do good, and you can do well,'" says Saladoff, who's documentary Hot Coffee premiered at Sundance. "I thought, 'Now there's an interesting concept.' Because I always wanted to do good. Somewhere in my background, I wanted to make the world a better place."

As a law student, Saladoff clerked for D.C.-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice — now called Public Justice — and once she graduated in 1983, "a big Wall Street firm" offered her "a lot of money." She turned it down and took a job, for a quarter of the salary, with Public Justice instead. She stayed there until 1985, when she became a trial lawyer specializing in medical malpractice cases — first for a Maryland firm, and then, after five years, her own firm, which she ran until moving to Oregon in 1998.

But Saladoff still dreamed of becoming a politician, and in early 2008, feeling burned out after 25 years of practicing law, she heard Bruce Braley, a congressman from Iowa, give a speech. "He was speaking about the preservation of our legal justice system," she says, "and as when he was speaking, I thought to myself, 'I could do that.' I got inspired to do something bigger than what I was actually doing."

Her first thought was to run against Congressman Greg Walden, but she did a research study and realized she couldn't beat him. "I said, 'OK, I have something to say, and I want to say it in a loud voice because nobody else is saying it.' And I thought I was going to say it in Congress, and then I thought, 'You know what? Documentary films get seen and they can tell a story. I have a story, and I have something to say. I'm going to make a documentary film.'"

This, despite having no filmmaking experience whatsoever. Saladoff didn't even know what a DP was. Nonetheless, that spring she decided to make a documentary, spent the rest of the year finishing her existing cases, and took a sabbatical in January 2009. That month she went to Sundance with nothing but an outline and a title, Dis-torted, which she considered a clever double entendre (given that the film would tackle the maliciousness of tort reform). She handed out cards and spoke with film editors, "and then I realized no one was going to come see a film called Dis-torted. No one even knows what a tort is."

Saladoff came up with the new title after Sundance, when she began researching the famous 1994 Liebeck vs. McDonald's case, in which a 79-year-old Albuquerque woman successfully sued the restaurant chain for burns suffered after she spilled coffee in her lap. The complaint was portrayed by the media as a money grab — as yet another example of a frivolous lawsuit clogging our legal system — but the truth was quite the opposite. The coffee was too hot. Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns that, as seen in a grotesque photo shown in Hot Coffee, turned her inner thighs black. And while a jury awarded Stella Liebeck $2.86 million in damages, a judge reduced the amount to $640,000.

That case serves, in Saladoff's film, as the launching point for a much broader investigation into how corporations and politicians have stripped citizens' access to, and fair awards from, the courts. States are passing laws that cap the amount of damages a jury can award. Judges favorable to corporations are being fed millions by the Republican Party to win elections. And companies are requiring employees to sign contracts that, through mandatory arbitration clauses, strip the employees' right to sue for damages.

It's dense, complicated material, but Saladoff handles it like a seasoned filmmaker, succinctly and clearly elucidating how tort reform has eroded our rights. The film finds its emotional power, however, through the stories of those who have been wronged by these reforms. Due to caps on damages, one couple can't afford to provide care for their son, who was brain damaged in utero after a doctor's oversight; now we're all paying, in the form of Medicaid. Oliver Diaz, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, lost his seat after he was wrongfully charged with bribery. And a Halliburton/KBR contractor who was gang-raped by coworkers, then imprisoned in a shipping container after filing her complaint, was denied the right to sue because of a mandatory arbitration clause in her contract

These are not the kinds of stories you'd expect from a documentary about the famous McDonald's case, and that's exactly why Hot Coffee could become one of this year's most talked about documentaries. Saladoff might still dream of entering politics, but her film inspires such outrage that the end result could be the same: change.

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