We all think we know the story of the woman who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and then sued the fast food chain for millions. But in the new HBO documentary "Hot Coffee", filmmaker Susan Saladoff shows how the media got the story all wrong, and often demonizes civil litigation, using phrases like “frivolous lawsuit” and “jackpot justice.” She says the distortion of civil cases is part of a big PR push to discourage people from suing big business.
So there's a media narrative here, and maybe out of laziness or inattention it never got corrected. But you also detail a very large PR campaign by big business to demonize this kind of litigation.SUSAN SALADOFF:
At the time that this verdict was rendered by the jury, there was a very big political push in this country by the Republican party for so-called tort reform.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Let's talk about tort reform. This phrase was one of the clarion calls of groups that were funded solely by big business that passed off as grass roots organizations, what's known as astroturf.SUSAN SALADOFF:
There was a huge public relations campaign started by large corporations, and they called them Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse or CALAs. And they were set up all over the country as if citizens sprung up spontaneously, outraged by all these lawsuits when, in fact, these Citizens Against Lawsuits groups, they were made up out of whole cloth from the public relations campaigns of groups like the American Tort Reform Association.
Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds were big backers of these Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse groups because they made a product that killed people, and people were starting to use the civil courts to hold them accountable. We're talking about really 25 years ago or more is when it started.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And, as a matter of fact, you note in the film a kind of proto-McDonald's story in a story about a telephone booth that President Ronald Reagan recounts.PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:
In California a man was using a public telephone booth to place a call. An alleged drunk driver careened down the street, lost control of her car and crashed into the phone booth. It’s no surprise that the injured man sued, but you might be startled to hear whom he sued, the telephone company and associated firms. That's right.SUSAN SALADOFF:
The telephone booth was in a very dangerous place and it had been hit several times. And the telephone company had never properly fixed the door, so even though he was trying to get out he couldn't get out until he was hit in the booth. He lost his leg. And so, it wasn’t a real - a real joke the way President Reagan had portrayed it.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
There is a whole other media angle to this which involves Citizen United, that ground- breaking decision by the Supreme Court to accord corporations the rights of individuals to free speech and to enable them basically to funnel unlimited amounts of money into political advertising.SUSAN SALADOFF:
So in most of our states now we elect our judges. And that means they have to raise money. And what's happened over the last many years is that large corporate interests have decided well, we want to get rid of these judges who are on our State supreme courts who are more pro consumer.
And so, they started handpicking candidates and funneling money into their campaigns, again, through front groups like Citizens for a Stronger Ohio or Citizens for a Safer Community.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which most people don't know is the largest lobbying group for corporations in the world. They've been shown to be funneling money into these political campaigns.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And this was long before Citizens United. In fact, you have John Grisham talking about his book, The Appeal:JOHN GRISHAM: The appeal was a book I published. It was always a novel. It’s completely fiction and it’s completely true. It's the story of the purchasing of a Supreme Court seat in Mississippi.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So tell us about the fate of Mississippi Judge Oliver Diaz.SUSAN SALADOFF: Justice Diaz was on the Mississippi State Supreme Court, and he was targeted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because he wasn't pro-business enough.MALE ANNOUNCER:
Diaz even voted to overturn a cocaine conviction because evidence of a prior cocaine sale was allowed. Oliver Diaz, very bad judgment!SUSAN SALADOFF:
The statistics are that the candidate who has the most money for political ads will win about 90% percent of the time
. He actually wound up winning the race, despite all of the money that was put into his opponent’s race, and when he won he was then brought up on false criminal charges and was acquitted but was off the bench for three years while he was fighting those charges.
And then, of course, his reputation was tarnished and he was unable to win in the next election.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I think one of the most alarming images from your gripping documentary is simply the picture of a headline from a paper in Mississippi, which read, “Mississippi Victims Losing 100 Percent of Appeals. Court Ignoring Juries.”SUSAN SALADOFF:
For two years a plaintiff, a person who was injured, even if they won a case, could not have their verdict upheld by the State Supreme Courts. And this was happening all over the country, not just in Mississippi.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
You have a big dog in this fight, don't you, Susan, having practiced as a personal injury lawyer for years? Isn’t your film just shriekingly one-sided?SUSAN SALADOFF:
I definitely have a point of view. I lived this. This is my truth. I practiced law for 25 years and I saw for all of those years how difficult it was for people to get justice, because the system is totally rigged against the average person.
And most people didn't get it until they needed it, until it affected them personally, and then when they needed the system and they realized, oh my, the system isn't there for me.
I just got angry and I wanted the truth to come out. Everybody's heard the other side of the story, but nobody's heard this side.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But there are frivolous lawsuits that waste taxpayer time and money, wouldn’t you concede?SUSAN SALADOFF:
Are there are outliers, are there some cases they get to court that shouldn't? Of course. We can't prevent that. We have a system where if a person is injured they get the right to bring a case.
But are there checks and balances in the system already? Absolutely. If you file a case and the judge believes that it's truly frivolous, number one, the judge will throw it out, and the person can get fined. And then there are also checks and balances, as in the McDonald's case, where the judge can reduce the verdict.
The reason we're talking about all these frivolous lawsuits is, again, because of this huge public relations campaign that was repeated over and over again: Greedy trial lawyer, frivolous lawsuit, jackpot justice. When you repeat things so many times, we start to believe these things.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Susan, thank you very much.SUSAN SALADOFF:
Thank you.BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Susan Saladoff’s HBO documentary is titled Hot Coffee. Her web site is Hotcoffeethemovie.com.http://www.onthemedia.org/2011/jul/08/hot-coffee/