Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hot Coffee

A Tort is a Tort (in Court, in Court)
Without It, You Have No Recourse (Of Course)
Your Legal Rights were Bought By Force
By the Corporate Life We've Led


"Warning: Do Not Throw Out Baby With Bath-water."

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.  And even if you poo-poo "conspiricism," doesn't mean there aren't organized efforts to circumvent government statutes and foundations.

Like "inalienable" rights.  Or the right to confront your accuser.

Hot Coffee is a fascinating, if scalding, little documentary that got sold to HBO, and slowly, but surely, is making its way around to theaters.  It's something of a "must-see," not only for how it dispels the simplified myths we're being sold by playing on our emotions (and pocketbooks), but also how that short-term presentation (dare I call it a "fiscal" view?) is crumbling our basic rights for "the bottom line."  It's about the corporately structured efforts by our business leaders to quash an individual's rights to sue corporations in court for harmful practices that affect lives.  The title derives from the case of Stella Liebeck, whom you might not have heard of, but you certainly know her court case.  It's the poster-child for the tort reform movement and Liebeck has been villified by the corporate world after having the temerity to sue McDonald's Corporation for damages after spilling hot coffee in her lap.*

Just the mention of it probably creates judgments in your mind: "Well, she bought the coffee;" "Of course, it's going to be hot;" "what's she drinking coffee in a car for?"  All legitimate questions and all answered in the movie.  But, like any court-case, decisions should be based on facts, and not the impressions given in a 10 second news-"blurb."  And the evidence is there, in the court records, the hospital procedures, the photographic evidence (which is appalling), and the corporations' own history (700 previous complaints of scalding and burns).  It's why a jury of Liebeck's (and your) peers awarded her 2.75 millions dollars.  She didn't ask for it.  She asked for McDonald's to pay for her skin graft procedures (yes, the burns were that severe).  The jury awarded her that sum by taking a minute percentage of McDonald's coffee sales profits and giving her that.  It just so happens McDonald's sells a LOT of coffee.  The courts further reduced that amount to 1.25 million, and eventually Liebeck and McDonald's reached their own agreement—never revealed—but the damage on all sides was done; the clown at McDonald's had to pay up and the old lady got burned in the court of public opinion—through no fault of her own.

But, it set up an endless potful of corporations (and the politicians funded by them) to call for tort reform limiting the damages a plaintiff can win in such lawsuits.  It was one of the rallying cries of George W. Bush's political career (with the help of political weasel, Karl Rove) while first running for Governor of Texas, then President.  It set up an all-out assault on the checks and balances of the court system, in which courts were stacked in favor of corporate interests (courtesy of Rove and his cronies flooding out-of-state monies to local judicial campaigns) and the instigation of corporations to fill their legal contracts with stipulations for settling issues through "mandatory arbitrations," rather than the courts—the "arbitrator" hired by the corporation, thus making them a client looking for return business.  Good luck with that process.

Scattered throughout the doc are man-on-the-street interviews, there mostly to show everyday folk's ignorance of the situation ("A tort?  It's a pastry, right?"), and it's understandable.  Everyone hears about frivolous lawsuits, and few—except those addicted to playing the lottery—like them, thinking that the costs get pushed onto them, by rising costs due to crippling judgments.  It does.  But it will, anyway.  If the corporations don't dish out the funds to cover their negligence, it inevitably turns into a Medicaid case—Medicaid, being paid by you, the taxpayer.  You pay either way.  And claims about tort reform stopping, and even the decreasing the costs of medical insurance hasn't been born out in practice; the state of Texas which, under George Bush, rushed to tort reform and damage caps, has had just as many rate increases and is on a par with non-reform states.  You pay either way.

Nobody's saving money here.  Nobody benefits except the corporations who pocket the savings garnered by tort reform, and still raise rates.  Nice little business you got there.

And the public still buys what the corps are selling.  As I said, nobody likes the dumb law-suits.  Until they're the ones who get caught in the gears.  One of the interviewees ruefully admits to voting for tort reform in his state, only to find out that it affected him when he was in crisis.  And we're all affected by it: next time you get a contract for your cell phone, read—actually read—the terms and conditions, or look at your next job application to see if there is a mandatory arbitration clause.  More likely than not, it's there.

So, be careful with that coffee.  One way or another, you'll get burned.

Hot Coffee is a Full-Price Ticket (but in the interest of "full disclosure, your honor, I saw it for Free).

* The tort reformers might have been better off using the guy who sued McDonald's because eating their stuff made him fat.  Some good came of it—you'd've had to pry caloric information out of restaurants from their cold, dead, grease-encrusted fingers if he hadn't—but I think the whole thing would've been solved if the judge just told the guy "Why don't you keep your mouth shut?"  (Or go to another restaurant, since he always had one thing corporations would LOVE to take away from us—choice).

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