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Is Our Civil Justice System Under Attack?

The movie, Hot Coffee, shows how big business protects profits by convincing Americans to give up their rights. Stella Liebeck was vilified for taking on McDonald’s. Colin Gourley fought damage caps all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Diaz nearly lost his own freedom trying to protect the judiciary. And Jamie Leigh Jones battled six years to overcome a forced arbitration clause in her employment contract. Hot Coffee brings each of their stories vividly to life while masterfully showing Americans that when they need their legal rights the most, they, too, might discover it’s too late.

EXHIBIT 1: The Public Relations Campaign When the news broke in 1994 that 79-year-old Stella Liebeck won $2.9 million in punitive damages from McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee in her lap, the talk show pundits, comedians and news media went crazy. But instead of running from a story that many still believe epitomizes “jackpot justice,” Hot Coffee sets the record straight. We learn from Stella’s children that she didn’t plan to sue the fast-food giant but only asked for help paying $10,000 in uncovered medical bills. We hear from jurors who thought McDonald’s was indifferent to how dangerously hot their coffee was despite more than 700 previous scalding cases. We watch as people randomly interviewed for the movie gasp when they see photos of the third-degree burns Liebeck suffered over 16 percent of her body. And we discover how corporate interests used the McDonald’s case as a springboard for a multimillion dollar campaign designed to disguise laws that restrict people’s right to go to court as “tort reform,” a term made up by advertising people. EXHIBIT 2: Caps on Damages The first planks in the “tort reform” platform are caps on damages in medical malpractice cases, which supporters contend will help rein in skyrocketing health care costs. Hot Coffee tells the story of identical twins Colin and Connor Gourley. While Connor was born healthy, Colin suffered severe brain damage because of a failed diagnosis and a botched surgery. Colin’s parents relive their shock when they find out damage caps passed by the Nebraska legislature will slash the $5.6 million the jury awarded Colin for a lifetime of care. The Gourleys challenged the cap as unconstitutional and took their case all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, only to lose. Like many parents, the Gourleys paid scant attention to the political rhetoric surrounding damage caps before Colin was born, but now tell viewers that caps are “only a pot of gold” for insurance companies and instead penalize those most seriously harmed by medical mistakes. EXHIBIT 3: Judicial Elections While the Nebraska Supreme Court sided with business interests against the Gourleys, high courts in several other states ruled that tort reform measures (including damage caps) were unconstitutional because they effectively eliminated the Bill of Rights guarantee to a trial by jury. With guidance from political consultants, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce set out to elect judges who would see things their way. Hot Coffee chronicles the story of Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi Supreme Court justice who found himself in the crosshairs of a million-dollar, Chamber-financed attack campaign to remove him from the bench. Despite long odds, he won reelection only to be indicted (and eventually cleared) on several bogus charges of bribery and tax evasion. EXHIBIT 4: Mandatory Arbitration Clauses Another tool in the big business toolbox to bar the public from the courtroom is the use of forced arbitration clauses in contracts for everything from cell phones to credit cards to checking accounts to employment agreements. Hot Coffee introduces us to Jamie Leigh Jones, a vivacious young woman allegedly raped by coworkers only days after arriving in Iraq for a new job with KBR (a former subsidiary of massive defense contractor Halliburton). Only 19 at the time, she tells a harrowing tale of being locked in a shipping container when she informed her supervisors of the attack. When Jamie returned home from Iraq, she tried to sue her employer only to be denied her day in court because of a mandatory arbitration clause in her employment contract. Her only recourse: bring her case to a private arbitration panel. Such panels are typically hand picked by the employer and side with the company more than 90 percent of the time.

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