I recently watched the new HBO documentary, Hot Coffee – a documentary that illuminates how big corporations spin media and promote “tort reform” for their own business interests and in doing so, undermine the court system. Specifically, personal injury law and personal injury lawyers become targets; our work thought to be petty, greedy, or—a popular term—“frivolous.” Of course, as a personal injury lawyer, I feel the incredible importance of this type of law; I’m reminded how of the three branches of government, the courts are the one equalizing branch. No matter how rich or poor you are, how powerful or not, anybody can seek justice through the courts. Whereas the executive and legislative branches are dominated by powerful interests, in the judicial realm, citizens can hold those powerful interests accountable for wrongdoing. Seeking justice and using the court system is a constitutional guarantee. Hot Coffee reveals how propaganda—both throughout the media, and big business and “tort reform” proponents—can really hurt that constitutional guarantee to a fair and free trial and instead works to promote big companies’ financial interests, and undermine the courts’ equalizing capacity.
The documentary is divided into four vignettes, each vignette exposing an example of how big business interests and “tort reform” advocates undermine the constitutional right to the courts. Beginning with the infamous story of the hot McDonalds coffee lawsuit, the film documents Stella Liebeck’s plight to hold a huge corporation responsible for their dangerously and unreasonably hot coffee. Media propaganda made her case look petty and “frivolous,” while in reality, the near-deathly spill of scalding coffee led the once spry and active 79 year old onto a downward spiral of health and to her subsequent death. Third degree burns required painful, expensive and dangerous skin graph surgery. Ms. Liebeck sought the courts for financial help and to raise awareness, but her case was twisted into a media-frenzy that made Ms. Liebeck a household name for all the wrong reasons. The facts of her case were exaggerated by the media, and this distortion fostered much negative sentiment surrounding personal injury law. Her case not only shows how media can affect law, but is also symbolic for the intricacies of the legal system in general; even with all the loop holes and injustices, the media distortions and the interests who seek to undermine, there is still great power that an ordinary citizen can harness through the legal system, and Ms. Liebeck used that power to change law and ensure the safety of others.
The next section focuses on how “tort reform” advocates are really hurting families who desperately need financial compensation after medical malpractice. Many states are enacting caps to actively limit the amount of money that someone can receive in a medical malpractice or personal injury case. This cap really hurt the Gurley family of Omaha, Nebraska. Colin Gurley was born with brain damage and cerebral palsy because of medical malpractice at birth. While the family was originally awarded $5.6 million, which would have been substantial for quality care for his life, because of a state-mandated cap, he could only receive $1.25 million, which will not pay for the high volume of care he will need throughout his life. This cap renders Colin forever reliant on his family, on tax payer money, and unable to sustain a happy life. Also, an unfortunate victim of “tort reform” backers, the next portion tells the story of Oliver Diaz, of the Alabama Supreme Court, who was targeted by Carl Rove and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because he was perceived to stand in the way of “tort reform.” He was indicted and ostracized with false charges, and his judicial career was ruined. Although the court found him not guilty, he didn’t have the funds or the media power to compete with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and their media power. Again, the financial interests of big business power undermine the equalizing power of the courts.
The film’s final vignette focuses on a woman named Jamie Leigh Jones, who was an unfortunate victim of one of the successes of tort reform. While she was working overseas for KBR/Halliburton, she was violently gang raped by the men in her barracks. Because of a mandatory arbitration clause she had signed in her contract to work for Halliburton, she accidentally waived her rights to a fair and unbiased trial. This portion documents Jamie’s extreme heroism and bravery in holding a big corporation accountable and demanding a trial to confront her attackers. She worked closely with Senator Al Franken, who was able to pass the first bill to ban mandatory tort reform in sexual assault and rape cases in the government branches.
Our court system is a privilege and necessity, and “tort reform” supporters disregard the equalizing power of the courts, and the incredible power the courts give citizens to hold their oppressors accountable for their actions. As a personal injury lawyer in Chicago, I worry about future caps on medical malpractice and personal injury cases in Illinois, and I worry what it will mean for my clients. Watching Hot Coffee only reminds me of why I do what I do, of the incredible power in the courts equalizing potential, in the undeniable right to seek justice in our country. And that ought not to be undermined.
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