In the 2011 documentary “Hot Coffee” former public-interest attorney, Susan Saladoff, makes her filmmaking debut in this eye-opening movie. In the film she leads the audience through four civil cases, revealing all of the struggles associated, and unveils the truth about what many people refer to as “junk lawsuits.”
For years now, big business has been waging a war against our right to a fair trial by jury in the civil court system. They have used easily misinterpreted information to sway the public’s view on tort when in fact many do not understand what tort or tort reform is. Tort is not necessarily an illegal action, but it is an action that causes harm to another. Tort reform is the practice sponsored by big business and medical professionals to put caps or limits on the amount of money someone can receive when they are harmed.
Large companies in this country have been funding politicians and judges’ campaigns to ensure that those in favor of tort reform—and therefore in favor of big corporations—are in office or on the bench. The documentary shows examples of the scare tactics that were used by the American Tort Reform Association—made up of big business employees. They would use sub groups that posed as citizens’ organizations to make the public believe that regular people were outraged by civil lawsuits and demanded tort reform.
In this interview with Bloomberg Law and filmmaker Susan Saladoff explains the misconceptions and what the truth is.
Tort reform really affects the companies more than anyone else. For example, in the documentary we hear about the case of Colin Gourley, who because of doctor error was born with cerebral palsy. When his parents went to court, they won their medical malpractice suit and the jury awarded them $5,600,000. The money was just under what an expert economist said Colin would need to cover his medical bills and other costs for the rest of his life because he would never be able to care for himself. The doctor who they sued in their case had already been sued two other times for medical malpractice, something the Gourleys did not know because those cases were settled out of court.
The Gourley family also did not know that in their home state of Nebraska, a law had been passed that limited or “capped” the maximum amount of damages that could be awarded in medical malpractice cases. This meant that the Gourley’s award was reduced from $5,600,000 to $1,250,000. In the campaigns by tort reform supporters that claimed that civil cases were costing citizens’ money, using tactics such as ‘why should the public pay for these frivolous cases.’ What many people don’t know is that because the doctor was found to be fully liable in the Gourley case, as she should have been, the public is now providing the money the doctor didn’t have to pay due to the damage cap through Medicaid.
In one clip of the documentary they show a speech President Obama gave when addressing the American Medical Association. “I personally believe [caps on malpractice awards] can be unfair to people who have been wrongfully harmed,” he said.
The documentary went on to illustrate how no one seems to care about the civil justice system until something bad happens and they need to utilize it. They gave an example of one man, who had previously voted in favor of tort reform, was injured. When he tried to seek compensation for his medical costs someone explained the cap to him. He said that he had voted for the cap but said that the limits were only for ‘frivolous’ cases and greedy people who were just trying to make a buck, not him who genuinely needed to collect damages. It wasn’t until he was actually in a situation where he was injured that he realized he had ruined his own case by supporting tort reform—he was not able to collect as much money as he needed.
These caps on damages take away the power of the jury deciding what the appropriate amount someone should be awarded in a civil case is. This is a direct violation of the Seventh Amendment, which states “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
With the caps, the jury can award the amount they deem appropriate but the judge then can change the award to reflect that jurisdiction’s cap.
The documentary also examines three other cases, and they are truly heart-wrenching tales of people who have been further injured by the limits of the civil system. It is pertinent to all citizens to learn about the civil justice system and what laws are preventing the upholding of the Bill of Rights. Most individuals who file a civil suit are looking for deserved and necessary compensation for their injuries and are seeking accountability from the person or entity that caused them harm.
There are ways to protect yourself from misleading ads and campaigns:
Philadelphia personal injury attorney Richard Console said, “This documentary is the best tool for educating the public about the truth of the civil justice system. It breaks through the stereotypes and misconceptions and provides the audience with a hard dose of truth that will change the way they view the legal system in this country.”