Hot Coffee Propaganda Against Citizens

The hot coffee plaintiff still makes the rounds in anti-jury propaganda. The Supreme Court justice in Mississippi was bought off the bench, not only in the Grisham novel. The Reagan mockery of the caller run over in a telephone booth by a car who sued — whom out of all people? —  the telephone company earned him big applause. The Halliburton employee who was promised housing in a women trailer in Iraq, then placed alone in the midst of 400 men in trailers and horribly drugged and gang-raped, had no recourse to the courts because of a mandatory arbitration clause in her contract.

Frivolous and abusive plaintiffs? Run-away jury system? Biased judges? Definitely so if you believe instant media reports from the court room after juries deliver their verdicts. Such stories breathe life into Seinfeld and entertain millions.

Not at all true if you see the facts in the Hot Coffee movie. I was moved by the suppressed facts and distorted propaganda when I saw the film today at the George Washington University, the alma mater of its producer, Susan Saladoff.

Although Ralph Nader was in the audience and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce a few blocks away was portrayed as the chief villain, the documentary rings true and not as counter-propaganda against so-called tort reform, court reform and the innocent-looking arbitration clause.

Non-lawyers and lawyers alike will find the movie moving and exciting, the evidence disgusting and disturbing, and the disregard of the constitutional guarantees of due process and trial by jury strategically trampled on by the Chamber deeply troubling.

I have often written about the press and their run on extravagant verdicts while ignoring the true outcomes of cases — both in the original court or after higher review — which frequently reflect significant, often huge corrections of the amount of damages awarded.

The movie brought home how ignorant I was about these particular cases and how much they have been distorted. It also made me wonder how many Americans understand the concept of torts — do not think sweet and delicious — or even the notion of damages — which reflects both harm and compensation for it. With legal terminology so unfamiliar to the average citizen, tort reform and court reform represent easy-to-swallow concepts for citizen and politician alike. The movie points out how they have been used for propaganda purposes.

Propaganda — there is an excerpt from a Bush speech where he expressly advocates propaganda. Citizen — that term is used in non-citizen propaganda groups, well-known in Washington, DC as astro-turfers as opposed to grassroot movements. I note such details to illustrate the educational side of this gripping documentary.