Interview with Susan Saladoff
This is your first film. Why did you decide to focus on tort reform?
I practiced law for 25 years and knew that most people had a completely distorted view of our civil justice system. People are voting against their own self-interest or signing contracts without knowing what's in them, and I wanted to make sure they knew what they were doing.
What kind of law did you practice?
I started out as a public interest lawyer, but my specialty was medical malpractice.
Can you briefly define "tort reform"?
It's a term that was made up by large corporate interests, but it essentially refers to the different ways people are giving up their rights to access the court system. Reform implies that it's a good thing, but really it just helps corporations be less accountable and make more money.
Is there another term that might describe it more accurately?
How about "tort deform."
Do you worry that the topic might be too technical for the lay person?
I was warned that might be the case, but I knew from trying cases how to tell a story. And I knew that even though the subject matter appears dry, the people who suffer from these wrongs aren't dry at all. They have real, relatable stories. Most of us haven't gone through what they've gone through, but we can still identify with them.
Why did you select these four cases to make your case?
The McDonald's coffee case was the springboard because most people think they know the facts of this case but they have it completely wrong. What was unique about the second case, about caps on damages, is that they were identical twins, so it was very clear to see what the difference in their lives was. The Oliver Diaz story is shocking in its own right, but also because John Grisham had fictionalized it in 'The Appeal.' I thought people would want to know the truth about that situation. And Jamie Leigh Jones' story is heart-wrenching and shows what's happening right this moment.
So why call the film 'Hot Coffee'?
Because everybody thinks they know that case. They come in thinking this is a film about frivolous lawsuits and our litigious society, but when they see the truth behind the McDonald's case ? particularly the pictures ? their minds are opened to the other stories.
In the McDonald's case, the jury awarded the plaintiff $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. How are these amounts calculated?
Compensatory damages are actual damages, such as medical bills and wage loss, and they include pain and suffering as well. Punitive damages are meant to punish the wrongdoer for doing something that's reckless or intentional and also to deter them from doing it again. The $2.7 million was two days of coffee profits for McDonald's, though as we know, the judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, Then McDonald's appealed and settled for an undisclosed amount.
During the debate about healthcare reform, Republicans suggested tort reform as an alternative to the bill. What would be the effect of introducing tort reform to the entire healthcare industry?
It would allow them to make more money. The savings that the insurance industry gets ? and it is the insurance industry, not the healthcare industry ? never gets passed along. It has absolutely no effect on reducing healthcare costs. In Texas, where you essentially can't bring a malpractice suit, healthcare costs have increased since 2003. What's interesting about tort reform among members of Congress is that when many of the most pro-tort reform among them have a medical malpractice issue in their family, they don't hesitate to bring a case. It's always someone else's case that's frivolous.
Are there too many frivolous lawsuits?
No. The truth is that one person's definition of "frivolous" is very different from another's. There are checks and balances in place. If a person brings a frivolous lawsuit, the court can not only throw it out, they can fine the person for bringing it. Any person can bring a bad lawsuit, but the chances of them finding a lawyer are not going to be good; lawyers that do this kind of work only make money if they win. And the argument that caps on damages prevents frivolous lawsuits is even more absurd because, by definition, the cap will only come into effect if a jury who has heard both sides of the story decides to award the person that much money.
With all of the corporate interests lining up in its favor, what is the outlook on further tort reform?
The debate is occurring in every state right now. Just today West Virginia held up caps on damages on medical malpractice suits as constitutional. There's a bill that Senator Al Franken and Representative Bruce Braley have each introduced called the Arbitration Fairness Act to prevent these clauses from being in our contracts. There was a recent Supreme Court case called AT&T v. Concepcion that allows corporations to ban class action lawsuits in contracts. I couldn't add that in the film because it was too complicated to add yet another thing.
What are you hoping viewers take away?
It's eye-opening. People come away with a better understanding of their rights. The truth is that the words ? "mandatory arbitration," "tort reform" ? are daunting, but when something happens and you need the system, they matter.