Hot Coffee (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hot Coffee</strong> (2011)

(On-demand Video, April 2012) A lot of people know about Liebeck vs McDonalds, a legal case in which a woman sued McDonalds for burns from a coffee, and received $2.7 million in damages.  Naturally, “a lot of people” don’t really understand the case, and still think it was an example of a frivolous lawsuit run amok. Hot Coffee starts by establishing the damning facts (showing gory burn pictures), and they make it that this certainly wasn’t a frivolous lawsuit: McDonalds had received over 800 complaints about burns caused by their coffee and Liebeck suffered third-degree burns that required extensive surgery.  But this is only the start of Hot Coffee‘s true agenda, which is to expose the ways in which the US civil judicial system has been systematically undermined by powerful corporate interests.  The goal is simple (make sure that business interests aren’t threatened by the judiciary branch) and the methods are many: PR campaigns to discredit civil suits and promote a hollow “tort reform”; lobbying to impose caps on damages; financing an organized effort to elect pro-business judges and discredit those who can’t be bought; and the practice of linking contracts to “mandatory arbitrage”, bypassing the judicial system in favour of conflict-resolution processes stacked in favour of the corporate client.  It’s all damning, and the examples used to illustrate the four pillars of writer/director Susan Saladoff are well-chosen.  Hot Coffee goes well beyond Liebeck vs McDonalds to uncover yet another piece of the vast anti-citizen effort that has noticeably curtailed civil rights in the US over the past few decades, and as such earns a place alongside some of the better-known activist documentaries of the past ten years.  Hot Coffee may not, stylistically speaking, be anything more than a series of talking heads blended with poignant personal stories, but it’s a fascinating piece of non-fiction… which may make you go to bed an angrier, more despondent moviegoer.

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