‘Hot Coffee’ Reveals Deeper Injustices in Civil Courts System

The McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit has become the knee-jerk reaction when it comes to critiquing the “lawsuit abuse” pervading the civil justice system, all thanks to some aggressive public relations and other campaigns that result in more “protections” for corporations and fewer rights for the public.

Susan Saladoff’s documentary Hot Coffee (2011) shows how this process works. The development of her argument in this documentary is quite sophisticated, and she breaks it down into tort reform, damages caps, judicial elections, and mandatory arbitration. For each section she tells the story of people affected by these changes. The McDonald’s lawsuit connects with tort reform, while a story of medical malpractice explains the problems with damages caps. Judicial elections show how corporations fund their business-friendly candidates and use a smear campaign to discourage voting for their non-perferred candidate. (If that sounds familiar, it’s a story that inspired a John Grisham novel.) Mandatory arbitration is snuck into various contracts for everything from credit cards to employment, and the story here involves a gang rape, already a vulnerable situation made worse without access to legal recourse.

While the documentary delves into complicated legal matters, it does offer clear explanations for what different aspects mean within the system and mean for the public. Rendering complex information is difficult, and Hot Coffee pulls it off well.

Two things struck me odd about this documentary. One is the animated sequence trying to explain the judicial system in “fun” way. Had this sequence been one among several, it might have worked. But it only appeared once. Also, had this sequence been an archival material and mixed with other archival pieces, it also might have worked. Instead, as far as I can tell, this animated sequence was created for the documentary itself. It just struck me as jarring and out of place, especially considering the seriousness of the stories.

The other is the calls for action at the end. I question these not so much in this documentary, but in documentaries in general. Should they be in the documentary itself, or should they be posted on the documentary’s website? These calls always feel like website materials to me because putting them online allows more depth of information on the “how to” part. A title card in a film telling the audience to write a letter to a government official might not be enough information to enable someone to follow through.

Posting the calls for action online also allows more people to access and share the information in ways that work for them. Not everyone might be willing to write that letter, but a person might be willing to share the action calls through their social networks, which might lead to several other people writing letters. Maximizing the online presence for change just seems more effective than taking up screen time. Why not just use a title card with the URL in the film, and then use the social media outlets for the rest? Just a thought.

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