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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Must See TV: Hot Coffee Premieres on HBO on Monday 6/27

Trust me when I tell you that it is very difficult to get friends, family, students and acquaintances engaged in a meaningful discussion of "mandatory arbitration."  Trust me further that there is now a wonderful documentary that manages to make this and other civil justice topics interesting and engaging for everyone.  (Indeed, my viewing companion, proudly not a lawyer, turned to me at one point in the movie and whispered "didn't you write a paper about something like that?")

Last night, I was fortunate enough to invite myself via twitter get invited to a screening of Hot Coffee at HBO.  Hot Coffee is a must see documentary about the way that business interests, "tort reform," judicial elections and "mandatory arbitration" have systematically worked in concert to deny plaintiffs access to civil justice.  It is the work of the energetic and passionate director Susan Saladoff who spent 25 years as a trial lawyer before becoming a filmmaker.  The documentary is well-conceived and thought provoking.  It takes some very complex topics and organizes them and presents them through compelling personal stories.  

The title "Hot Coffee" refers to the iconic case that is ubiquitous in pop culture as a symbol of the frivolous lawsuit: the woman who sued McDonalds because she was served a coffee that was too hot.  The film starts very strong by retelling this story through interviews with the plaintiff's family.  This challenged me (and from the gasps in the theater, I suspect everyone else viewing the film) to see the case in an entirely different light.  With that strong start, the viewer is engaged and ready to hear about damage caps, judicial elections and mandatory arbitration in consumer and employment contracts.

Here's the trailer:

After the film, there was a Q&A session moderated by Jeffrey Toobin.  He appeared to receive the movie very favorably, noting that the fine print in a cell phone contract is not one of the sexy topics that CNN hires him to discuss on the evening news segments (which reminded me of this Dahlia Lithwick piece in Slate, which seemed to begrudgingly report on AT&T v Concepcion).  

Toobin did mention one frustration, which could be leveled as a critique of the film -- that it only presents one point of view.  Notably absent and/or unwilling to participate were voices from the "other side," i.e., those in favor of damage caps and mandatory arbitration.  Saladoff's response, I thought, hit the nail on the head: in so many words, she said that she wanted to tell this side of the story, and the voices in favor of these reforms already had a well-financed platform (and, indeed, overtaken the public consciousness).  Perhaps I am partial to her response because her film paints a picture in line with my world view, and I am just so thrilled to finally see an engaging and accessible presentation explaining the systematic erosion of civil justice at the behest of corporate interests.

Our students come to law school generally ignorant of or misinformed about tort reform, mandatory arbitration and many of the other topics presented in this film.  However, they do at least know of handful of cases -- OJ, Bush v Gore and, of course, the hot coffee case.  I have no doubt that this film will be used in the classroom.  It is masterfully done and captivates those uninitiated with these topics as well as those who have studied them (and even includes a few clips of interviews with George Lakoff).  Please tune in to HBO on Monday night.

[Meredith R. Miller]

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