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'Hot Coffee' comes to New Orleans

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Susan Saladoff, director of last year's excellent HBO documentary Hot Coffee, came to New Orleans on Monday for a screening of her film, a Q&A session, and a talk with law students at Tulane and Loyola University about the film and its message. She traveled to Baton Rouge the next day for similar talks with law students at LSU and Southern University. The event was underwritten by the Louisiana Association for Justice and by preeminent local attorney Russ Herman and his firm Herman, Herman, Katz & Cotlar, LLP.

If you've never seen the movie, I couldn't recommend it highly enough. I blogged about it last summer when it made its TV debut; it's an important (and very entertaining) look at Tort Reform in the United States - a public relations battle that big corporations have been waging against everyday Americans who want to use the Court System as they are entitled by the Constitution to do.

Ms. Saladoff was gracious enough to grant me an interview in which she talks about her movie:

Read the transcript of the interview HERE
"Each story in the film represents a different way that we as Americans are giving up our rights to access the Court System," Saladoff says about the film. "And most of us don't even think about it or care about it until something happens to us personally." This is one of the most important messages in Hot Coffee: It's so easy to call a lawsuit 'frivolous' and make jokes about it because we're not the ones affected by it; no plaintiff involved in a 'frivolous' suit thinks it's very frivolous. That's definitely so in the famous 'Hot Coffee' case presented in the movie - an elderly woman spilled McDonald's coffee on herself in 1994 and sued McDonald's because of the horrific damages she suffered.

Most people view this as a shameful abuse of our Justice System. In her talk at Tulane, Ms. Saladoff explains how the Tort Reform movement has shaped how we view such cases:

The right to a trial by jury is granted by the Seventh Amendment of the Constitution. Saladoff explains that, "There has been a huge media campaign over the last 25, 30 years that was intended to convince the public to give up their own Constitutional rights. And it's been in this form called 'Tort Reform.' 'Reform,' like it's supposed to be a good thing. But it's not a good thing for average folks, it's a good thing for those people who want to limit our ability to get into the courtroom."
This media campaign has maneuvered public opinion on the side of corporate interests, so that there has been enough momentum behind limiting access to the Court System. This has happened in several different ways, some of them displayed in Hot Coffee. One way is through mandatory arbitration, described by Saladoff here:

We as consumers, Saladoff says, are voluntarily surrendering their rights because, "We don't even understand that we're doing it." Cell phone contracts, for example, induce the client to waive his or her right to bring the cell company to court; any disputes are heard not by the Court but instead by an arbitrator. We sign these contracts because, if we want to own a cell phone, we have no other choice.
The media campaign has public opinion on the side of caps on damages awarded in lawsuits. This, in theory, is supposed to prevent so-called 'Jackpot Justice,' in which a plaintiff is awarded millions and millions by a sympathetic jury. It's a ridiculous idea, as Saladoff explains:

What the Tort Reform movement is basically saying is that the jury system is a failure, that 12 objective people who are given the facts of a case are unable to reach the "right" conclusion. "Most people have the wrong perception of juries," Saladoff said, "that somehow they take it lightly. Juries, in my experience, take things very seriously... 12 people who sit on a jury, particularly if they're going to be on a case where they're being asked to give money to people, they take it really seriously. And even if they were to make a mistake, the judge can reduce the verdict or take it away." So the Tort Reform movement is saying that this method of justice - the method laid out by the Constitution of the United States - is not the way we should be doing it.

Of course, the "right" conclusion means only the "just" conclusion, and justice shouldn't have a meaning synonymous with the interests of big corporations, and it shouldn't be determined by those who have the resources to stack the deck in their favor.

"I believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant," Saladoff said during her talk. She believes that the best way to fight for the rights of average, everyday Americans is to spread the truth. That's why she stepped away from her successful law practice to make a movie, because she believed so fully in its ideas.

So, if you haven't yet seen Hot Coffee, you really should check it out. You can purchase the DVD on Amazon, watch it on HBO, or visit the movie's official web site at You can also check it out on Facebook, Twitter, and follow Susan on Twitter @SusanSaladoff.

Adding some excellent input to the discussion and Q&A at the Tulane Law forum, was Russ Herman, well known and widely respected as an attorney advocate for victims' and consumers' rights, as well as instructor, author and leader in our community. He gave great praise to Ms. Saladoff for her very important and remarkable film, and noted how she sacrificed her successful career in order to make this difference that she made.
Russ emphatically pointed out to the law students in attendance that, upon graduation, they would be among the top one percent income-earning elite in the world. He pointed out that it was not politicians, but lawyers, who were behind the travesty documented in this film, and he challenged each of them to also strive to make a positive difference with the knowledge and opportunities they were being provided.
Russ mentioned two quotations I find worth repeating here:
One was a quotation from author Dante Alighieri: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality."
And two, which I have to paraphrase because I simply didn't catch the author's name, or even the quote fully, was, "If you can accomplish one thing for the benefit of humanity, then you have indeed accomplished something." Russ said that Ms. Saladoff's accomplishment, with this Hot Coffee documentary, reminded him of this quote.

You can learn more about Russ by visiting his bio on his official web site. You can read the transcript of our interview HERE, and listen to the audio HERE



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