As a plaintiffs’ lawyer in Oregon, Susan Saladoff occasionally made short films of her clients. She represented people claiming medical malpractice, and if she could capture video of what they were going through, she reasoned, they had a better chance of getting a quick settlement.
Saladoff’s latest film won’t lead to any settlements, but it’s appearing on many more screens and will get more attention. Three years ago, she dropped her legal career and started work on what has become Hot Coffee, a pro-plaintiff documentary that’s a call to arms over tort law, jury awards and judicial elections. The film has been making the rounds at festivals nationwide. Screenings are scheduled this week in New York and Washington, and the film is set for its public debut on HBO on June 27.
Hot Coffee is named for the high-profile 1994 case of an elderly New Mexico woman, Stella Liebeck, who spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself and sued. Comedians, journalists and politicians mocked her case, adding momentum to the effort to cap damage awards.
The film is an aggressive attempt to channel the public’s sympathy back to plaintiffs — using Liebeck’s case and others. In graphic detail, it shows Liebeck’s third-degree burns that required hospitalization and skin grafts, and it notes Liebeck settled out of court for an undisclosed amount likely far less than her initial $2.9 million jury award.
Business groups are beginning to denounce the film. A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform said it’s as fanciful as the Flat Earth Society, while Victor Schwartz, who appears in the film as general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, said he regrets participating in what he calls “the most effective piece of propaganda” that trial lawyers have ever put out.
To Saladoff, who was making her first real film, Hot Coffee serves up long-overdue balance to a national debate.
“I wanted to change the conversation,” Saladoff said. “The other side of this issue has monopolized the conversation because of the amount of money they have.”
The film came about after a midlife career change. Saladoff, 52, had a long career in plaintiffs’ work, starting as a clerk at the public interest firm Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. She learned trial work at what’s now Shadoan, Michael & Wells in Rockville, Md., before striking out on her own in medical malpractice cases. Representing injured patients made her feel like a champion, she said, and she served a turn as president of a foundation affiliated with the trial-lawyer firm at which she initially clerked.
That didn’t last. “After 25 years, the truth is you get sort of worn down,” she said. The defendants would have more resources, juries became less sympathetic and winning became harder. “It would get me angry that I couldn’t tell my clients that I could get them justice. They’d walk in the door, and I’d say, ‘The system is stacked against you,’ ” she said.
In 2008, Saladoff was a partner at what was then Davis, Hearn, Saladoff & Bridges in Ashland, Ore., when she decided to take a year off and considered running for Congress. The area’s Republican tilt — and the prospect of moving back to the Washington area — dissuaded her from a run, but she had another idea instead: make a documentary. Though there’s no shortage of films, such as Erin Brockovich, that lionize trial lawyers, no one had made a documentary about tort law.
“I really was waiting for someone else to make this movie, and it never happened,” Saladoff said, “so I said, ‘OK, I guess it’s me.’ ”
Bryan Quigley, the Chamber spokesman, agrees that the film is unusual, but he doesn’t see that as a virtue. “In the midst of all the evidence, they cling to the belief that America doesn’t have too many lawsuits, [and] that we don’t sue enough. They deny that the lawsuit industry is out of control, when the rest of the world knows that it is,” he said, reading from a prepared statement.
The Chamber, which is among the biggest business lobbying groups in Washington, gets particular attention in Hot Coffee. The film accuses the Chamber of throwing mud in Mississippi state court elections, and in 2009, Saladoff’s camera crew set up outside the Chamber’s headquarters to interview lawyers and businessmen as they made their way into a legal conference.
Quigley said the treatment isn’t surprising. “It was made by an activist plaintiffs’ lawyer who is a long-time leader in the plaintiffs’ lawyer lobbying group,” he said.
Schwartz, of the American Tort Reform Association, is a lonely voice in the film who supports corporate defendants, but he said in an interview that the film takes quotes out of context when he was trying to be balanced. The result is that he criticizes his own side — saying, for example, that some tort reform proponents used “scare tactics that didn’t really have a basis in fact.”
“I’m an ‘on the one hand and on the other’ kind of guy, and they would include a snippet of the one hand,” said Schwartz, who is also a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “I thought, ‘Don’t cut my hand off!’ ”
Saladoff doesn’t deny that the film has a point of view. “It’s my truth. It’s what I’ve lived for 25 years,” she said. Told of Schwartz’s criticism, she said all the words he speaks in the film are his own. “I can’t help what he said. I’m going to use the things he said that are good for the film,” Saladoff said.
Most of the legal experts in Hot Coffee are aligned with the plaintiffs’ bar, including Joan Claybrook, the retired president of Public Citizen, and F. Paul Bland Jr., a senior attorney at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. The largest trade group for trial lawyers, the American Association for Justice, wasn’t involved in making the film, but it is having a screening at its national convention next month in New York.
“Most people only have a limited idea of the necessity and importance of our civil justice system, and that powerful forces are constantly trying to undermine it or take it away,” C. Gibson Vance, president of the American Association for Justice, said in an e-mailed statement. Saladoff’s film, he said, helps debunk the myths.
Including the McDonald’s case, the film is built around four story lines. The others are a Nebraska family with a son whose brain damage might have been prevented at birth, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice who was defeated for re-election and a Texas woman, Jamie Leigh Jones, who reported being raped while working in Iraq but whose employment contract with KBR Inc. required mandatory arbitration to settle the claim. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit let Jones’ civil claim go forward anyway, and the trial began last week.)
During the next month, Hot Coffee is scheduled to run at least 11 times on HBO or HBO2, and Saladoff said she’s in the process of bringing it to as many as 30 film festivals. This month, it won a top prize at the Seattle International Film Festival, as the jury said it “makes dry legal boilerplate spring to life.” Stops at law schools are in the works, and Saladoff said a theatrical release is planned for the fall, targeted at small, art-house theaters.
Joanne Doroshow, another tort expert who appears in the film, has longer-term hopes. The executive director of the Center for Justice & Democracy, a New York nonprofit that sides with plaintiffs on civil justice issues, she said Hot Coffee has the potential to change people’s minds for years. “Moving forward, those of us who want to try to educate people about this issue will be able to point to this film and use it in educational ways,” she said.
David Ingram can be contacted at email@example.com. Tony Mauro contributed to this article.