The truth about Ms. Liebeck's case: a picture's worth a thousand words, and the distressing photos of her injuries might turn a few heads. More complications arise in the form of the jury, which awarded Ms. Libeck $2.7 million in damages (intended to reflect roughly 2 days worth of McDonald's coffee sales, as a way of sending a message to McDonald's), and turned her case into a national joke (a judge lowered her payout to around $600,000, and she settled for less on an appeal). With a perfect image of "jackpot justice" in the form of a $2.7 million cup of coffee, the corporate industry took their chance to shift the public's opinion against trials like Liebeck's.
Saladoff's skills as a documentarian are pretty strong. Over the course of the film, she presents the stories of four people, carefully but energetically illustrating the ways the "tort reform" issue (reducing or capping the amount of damages individuals can make from a civil case) has impacted their lives. Ms. Liebeck's case is eye-opening, but Saladoff slowly ups the ante, moving onto the stories of Colin Gourley, the permanently disabled victim of a doctor twice sued for malpractice, and Justice Oliver Diaz, who won his Supreme Court re-election bid in the face of expensive ads run by corporations, only to have his career derailed by two years of baseless investigations. Saladoff uses a smooth blend of archive television footage, interviews with her subjects and other legal experts, and images of documents like newspapers and contracts. The DVD case notes that Saladoff was a former public-interest lawyer herself, and not only does her knowledge of the subject serve her well, but it also informs her style of presenting information.
Most interesting, however, is the final story: Janie Leigh Jones, a contract employee for Haliburton, was sent to Iraq as part of her job, where she claimed she was drugged and raped by other Haliburton employees. When she went to file suit, she discovered that her employment contract -- a mandatory step in being hired -- legally bound her to choose arbitration rather than settle in public court. It's likely that anyone reading this has signed away their rights in a similar employment contract (I know I have) and never thought twice, and it's a little startling to consider how willingly one signs away their rights. The twist, however, came after the film was finished: if you only view the documentary, it appears that Jones is the victim of a gross injustice, but in June 2011, a civil court found Haliburton not guilty, and arrived at the conclusion that Jones' story was fabricated.
On one hand, the movie's ominous music and Jones' nearly emotionless demeanor take on a different light depending on the viewer's knowledge of the case and its outcome (and I'm sure the other three families, whose complaints appear to be sincere, probably wish they weren't lined up next to her), but it's a testament to the strength of the argument presented by Saladoff that it doesn't hurt the film at all. As of today, the Occupy protests continue around the country, and it's easy for anti-Occupy sentiments to cross over into sentiments that nearly read like people surrendering their Constitutional right to assemble. Similarly, although Hot Coffee believes in Jones' story, it doesn't really matter if you believe her, or feel that Ms. Liebeck deserved $2.7 million. It's not a question of merit. It is Jones' right to have her day in court, and a jury siding with the defendant after all of her efforts is a sign the system works. Hot Coffee suggests, and suggests eloquently, that people are being tricked into letting their rights wane, and that's the real issue -- something everyone should care about.
The Video and Audio
No trailers play when you put in the disc (!), but in the special features section, you can view trailers for Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Air Guitar Nation, A Crude Awakening, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Both a teaser and theatrical trailer for Hot Coffee are included, as well as a text biography of the director and a screen of info on Docurama Films.