Film sparks discussion on tort reform at library


The Plainville Library recently hosted a discussion about the legal issues discussed in the documentary “Hot Coffee,” led by local attorney Ken Laska.
The 2011 film was directed by attorney Susan Saladoff and began to develop a following after a very positive reception at the Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s slowly becoming a very famous film and it’s part of our library’s goals to bring important topics to the public,” said Library Director Peter Chase.
The title references the infamous case in 1994 when Stella Liebeck, an elderly woman from Albuquerque, sued McDonalds after the approximately 180 degree coffee spilled on her in a car (she was a passenger, not driving) and resulted in severe third-degree burns. The family wanted McDonalds to help pay for the necessary skin grafts to treat the burns and a jury initially awarded her over $2.7 million in damages.
This amount was later reduced by a judge to $480,000 and Liebeck eventually settled with McDonalds for an undisclosed amount.
Despite this, the case became the poster child for frivolous litigation and the documentary details how corporate interests used this case as leverage to limit the ways in which individuals can legally challenge a corporation.
In its discussion of tort reform efforts, the documentary addresses the issues of caps on damages, political influence in judicial elections and mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts that prevent customers from taking a business to court. High profile cases, such as Jamie Leigh Jones’s suit against Halliburton, were profiled in detail to give examples of each of these issues.
“The first time I saw this, I could not believe that these sort of things happened,” said Laska, who donated two copies of the film to the library. “It’s something I think everyone should see.”
Connecticut has resisted tort reform efforts more than some other states – there are no caps on damages and judges are appointed by the governor rather than elected.
The small crowd that watched the film used words like “frightening” and “eye-opening” to describe it during the discussion.
“It reiterated my worries that the country is swayed towards corporate interests,” said Robert Johnson. “It seems almost impossible to protect yourself within this system.”
In his remarks, Laska dismissed most of the rationales for tort reform. He argued that tort cases are not nearly as prevalent as they have a reputation for being, and that divorce, foreclosure and debt cases took up far more time in the courts.