Hot Coffee, frivolous lawsuits and HBO

HBO premiers Hot Coffee, The Movie tonight. The documentary is Oregon attorney Susan Saladoff’s labor of love. Susan put aside her law practice to will this film into being. She is a force of nature.

Susan makes no bones about her point of view. Like me, she is an Oregon consumer-side attorney who represents injured Oregonians in tough cases. I’ve tracked her cases over the years–we’re buddies–and she is the real deal. Susan grew weary of the fog machine’s distortion of the civil justice system. So she set out to make a film to publicize some of the misconceptions of our system.

By all accounts, she had no real experience as a filmmaker. I imagine that many thought her to be a modern-day Quixote riding off to do battle with the menacing windmills. As with any audacious plan, there are many ways to fail. But she is a force, and her improbable work wound up at Sundance with great recognition.

The well-known McDonald’s hot coffee case serves as a starting point for her film. While everyone knows the McDonald’s case, Susan gets the evidence and shows why the jury correctly decided it and how the pro-corporate fog-machine turned it into a cause by totally misrepresenting the facts. After watching some of the early cuts of the film-in-progress, I was awed by how she brought the evidence to life. Once you see this movie, you will never think about the McDonald’s hot coffee case the same way again.

The corporate fog machine’s favorite catch phrase, “frivolous lawsuit,” is at issue here. It’s a bastardized meme, arising from the rules of civil procedure. It used to mean that a case had no legal or factual basis and that the lawyer pursuing the matter did so in bad faith. Now it has come to mean any case in which a consumer seeks justice for wrongs heaped upon them.

Corporate interests took aim at the civil justice system because our civil justice system provided the only means through which consumers and members of the middle class could hold wrongdoers accountable. In doing so, the frivolous lawsuit meme has nullified the Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury. The film is part of a growing movement to restore the Seventh Amendment and consumers’ access to the civil justice system.

I am planning to watch it tonight and planning to record it as well. Susan is a jewel for her commitment and her achievement. All of us who work in the trenches of the civil justice system are indebted to her.

Laura Pallas says

How I wish one of you (David or Susan) could represent me in a Trust Fund situation that I have been told must be handled in FL. I used to live in OR but moved to WA state about 9 months ago. The brokerage rep has been churning my funds for years and the Trustee (my brother-in-law) has withdrawn large amounts with no explanation. Apparently, I have to work through a lawyer in the state where the Trust Fund was drawn up. I pay for my lawyer, my brother-in-law's lawyer, my brother-in-law's Trustee fees, the brokerage firm reps commissions and fees, and my brother-in-law's accountant if things get that far. Needless to say, most of what was left to me has been siphoned out of my Trust Fund by a group of concienceless people. I believe when the end comes, it will come down to arbitration as well. I am 57 years old, now jobless and living with my daughter and her family. Talk about the system failing the little guy . . . .

David Sugerman says

Hi Laura-
Sounds pretty grim. If it's any comfort, I could not represent you on this, even if it could be pursued here in Oregon. Trust litigation is a fairly specialized area. I don't have much experience litigating probate cases, so I tend to refer those to people who practice in the area. I know of at least one or two Oregon lawyers who do a good job in these areas, but none in Florida.

David Sugerman

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