June 27, 2011 / 5:48 PM / in 6 years

"Hot Coffee" shows other side of "frivolous" lawsuits

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It was the case that launched a thousand jokes. The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit almost 15 years ago came to represent for most people everything that’s wrong with the American civil justice system -- a plaintiff with a serious shortage of common sense, a huge windfall in damages and a waste of everyone’s time.

Except that it wasn’t any of those things -- at least according to an HBO documentary, “Hot Coffee”, produced and directed by personal injury attorney Susan Saladoff.

“Hot Coffee”, which debuts on Monday, seeks to dispel the notion that U.S. courts are flooded with frivolous lawsuits and greedy lawyers. It focuses on four people who have been left in financial and emotional straits by caps on punitive damages and mandatory arbitration.

In 1992, Stella Liebeck, 79, was sitting in a parked car, trying to put cream and sugar in a cup of McDonald’s coffee when it spilled on her, causing third-degree burns. She initially won a $2.9 million award which was later reduced to $480,000. Liebeck eventually settled for an undisclosed amount.

Reuters spoke with Saladoff about the documentary, which took two years to make and finance and which got its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Q: How did you make the switch in 2009 from lawyer to filmmaker after practicing for 25 years?

A: “I kept seeing in the media these distortions, not just about the McDonald’s case but about the civil justice system. ‘Frivolous lawsuits,’ ’ greedy trial lawyers,’ ’ jackpot justice.’ Those words were used to play on people’s emotions. Nobody talks about frivolous defenses. I kept thinking somebody else was going to deal with it. Then finally I said, ‘Ok, it’s me.'”

Q: So did you just go out and buy a camera?

A: “In 2002 I had a very severely brain-injured client. She had almost no short-term memory. When you met her, she looked normal, but if you walked away and came back 15 minutes later, she wouldn’t even know she’d ever seen you before. I couldn’t explain to the other side what this injury meant for her life. So, I thought, I‘m going to get a camera and spend three days with her and see what happens. I realized how effective story telling is through film.”

Q: How did you finance the film?

A: “I raised money person by person, house party by house party. It was all donations. We also used the Independent Feature Project as a sponsor.”

Q: Do you have any concerns that the film should be more balanced?

A: “I do not apologize for having a point of view. Everybody knows the other side. Nobody knows this side. I don’t want say that people have to agree with me, but at least open your mind that there’s another side of the story.”

Q: What’s your view about frivolous lawsuits? Does the legal system handle them effectively?

A: “What is the definition of a frivolous lawsuit? Because what’s frivolous to you may not be frivolous to me. Everyone thinks that the McDonald’s coffee case is frivolous until they see my film.”

Q: Do you find anything encouraging about the state of civil justice in America right now?

A: “The hope is that people are watching this film and getting angry and wanting to do something. Nobody wants to talk about mandatory arbitration. Nobody wants to talk about tort reform. These words are like blah blah blah, boring boring boring, until something happens to you or a family member or a close friend.”

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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