Earlier this month HBO launched a new documentary, Hot Coffee, that is designed to challenge entrenched stereotypes concerning our legal system and to remind all Americans of an important, but often overlooked, constitutional right: the trial by jury.
The film takes its title from the famous 1990s personal injury lawsuit involving an elderly woman who suffered a serious burn injury after spilling a cup of McDonalds coffee. As the filmmakers point out, this case became the “poster child” for frivolous lawsuits. The point of the movie is not, however, to demonstrate that the facts of this and several other high profile cases were different than was widely reported in the media (though they are, and the film does make that point strongly).
Instead, it focuses on a broader and even more important issue: the lengths to which large and powerful corporations will go to keep cases involving their negligence out of our courts and away from juries. Our Seventh Amendment guarantee of a trial by jury is one of the most fundamental rights we enjoy as Americans. Yet, as Hot Coffee demonstrates, that right has been under attack for a generation or more. Companies make getting to court difficult and winning even harder.
When they do settle they often require victims to sign non-disclosure agreements that leave the company free to tell its side of the story but prevent victims from airing their own.
This, in turn, makes it easier for companies to dominate public discussion and to paint legitimate actions by ordinary Americans seeking justice as frivolous grabs for money and attention. Any Oregon personal injury lawyer can attest to the importance of the issues raised by Hot Coffee. The film is currently available for sale at Amazon.com and is also available for rent via Netflix.