'Hot Coffee' burns tort reform

A large cup of McDonald's "Premium Roast" coffee.

CHIOTAKIS: A new documentary premieres tonight on HBO. "Hot Coffee" chronicles the now-famous case of a woman who sued McDonald's after accidentally spilling piping hot coffee in her lap. The case was ridiculed as frivolous. But the director and producer of the program says no way. The case points to major flaws in how justice -- or injustice -- is carried out in this country.

Susan Saladoff, good morning.

SUSAN SALADOFF: Good morning.

CHIOTAKIS: I want to know -- what's the difference between what people think happened with the Hot Coffee incident and what really happened.

SALADOFF: Well, most people think that this woman was driving the car, that she spilled coffee on herself, that she wasn't very severely injured, and that she -- you know -- had "jackpot justice." That she got millions of dollars. You know, none of that is true. She was in a parked car -- a passenger in a parked car, the coffee was so hot it caused third degree burns, she was incapacitated for almost two years.

CHIOTAKIS: Why do you suppose, Susan, people don't know how badly this woman was injured?

SALADOFF: This case became the poster child for what's wrong with our legal system. A tool that was being used for this legal reform, or tort reform, which most people of course don't even know what a tort is. And yet we're being asked to give up our rights all the time. And so, no body ever actually found out what the true facts were -- just the myths continued to be perpetuated.

CHIOTAKIS: What about those who say the court system is buried in frivolous lawsuits and then arbitration is the way to go>

SALADOFF: We are signing away our rights in contracts every day. Sometimes we don't even have a choice like in our cell phones or our credit cards. In the fine print is something called mandatory arbitration, or forced arbitration. If you wind up having a dispute with the company that you've signed this contract with, the company that you're arguing with is going to pick the decision maker, pay for the decision maker. The decision maker don't have to give a reason why he or she comes up with the decision. It's completely secretive and there's no right to appeal.

CHIOTAKIS: Do you think there is such a thing as a frivolous lawsuit?

SALADOFF: Many lawyers aren't going to take a case that's frivolous because they only get paid if they win. And there are checks and balances in the system. When a person brings a frivolous lawsuit, not only is the case thrown out, the person can be fined. Are we going to prevent all frivolous lawsuits from being filed? Of course not, but do we throw the baby out with the bathwater, I don't think so.

CHIOTAKIS: Susan Saladoff, the director and producer of "Hot Coffee." It premieres tonight on HBO. Thank you Susan.

SALADOFF: Thank you so much.

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