An eye-opening indictment of the way big business spins the media and rigs the courts to protect itself from so-called “frivolous lawsuits,” Susan Saladoff’s “Hot Coffee” is a solid if not especially cinematic public-interest exhibit on how citizens are losing access to America’s civil justice system. Though hardly likely to catch fire at the box office (HBO acquired rights at Sundance), this VOD-ready know-your-rights doc should brew healthy debate, exploding the myth (cooked up by corporate lobbies) that taxpayers foot the bill for plaintiffs like Stella Liebeck, whom a jury awarded $2.9 million after McDonald’s served her a lava-hot java.

Rather than drowning its lean, informational message with statistics, pic uses four human-interest cases to illustrate the point that citizens have a right to sue. Given the notoriety her settlement attracted in the press, Liebeck makes a logical place to start. Even so, auds will be astounded how little they know about her case: Liebeck was parked and seated in the passenger seat — not driving — when she spilled a near-boiling McDonald’s coffee in her lap, suffering third degree burns that cost the family more than $10,000 in hospital bills. According to the docu, after contacting McDonald’s directly, the company offered just $800.

The photos of Liebeck’s injuries alone are enough to change minds about what popular imagination has branded the ultimate get-rich-quick coup, though it should surprise auds to learn that Leibeck was seeking a far more modest sum, just enough to cover her skin grafts. It was the jury that tacked on the multimillion-dollar punitive blow, assessing the amount as two days’ worth of coffee sales for the fast-food chain.

No wonder corporations want caps on damages. To the average citizen, settlements such as Liebeck’s (which the judge reduced to $480,000) make it look like the system is rewarding stupidity with lottery-scale jackpots. But the truth, the film argues, is that while states with caps protect doctors, they leave taxpayers on the hook for medical malpractice suits, as illustrated by the case of Colin Gourley which shows that Medicare must pick up the bill for whatever doctors don’t pay. (Surprisingly, insurance premiums are often higher in such states.)

Fixing her sights on agitprop-doc villains George W. Bush (a self-proclaimed tort reformer) and Karl Rove (who formed an org to help elect corporate-friendly state judges), Saladoff spotlights former Mississippi supreme court justice Oliver Diaz. The subject of a massive, commercial-interest funded smear campaign, Diaz was allegedly steamrolled in an effort to create a judicial majority dedicated to overturning jury decisions. His chapter makes for riveting drama — no surprise considering that his story also inspired the John Grisham thriller “The Appeal.”

But it is Saladoff’s final subject, former Halliburton employee Jamie Leigh Jones, who serves as the most infuriating example of legal injustice. After being raped by co-workers, Jones was not allowed to sue her employer on account of a binding mandatory arbitration agreement she’d signed when she took the job. Saladoff follows Leigh all the way to Washington, D.C., where Al Franken takes her side, while making the point that as consumers and employees, virtually everyone watching the film has similarly waived their rights.

Though dry in subject and square in style, “Hot Coffee” is impressively polished — and dramatic — considering that Saladoff’s background is in law, not filmmaking. A clear passion project, her presentation serves as an entertaining, occasionally horrifying lay person’s introduction to the subject, defining terms along the way. (At one point, it even features a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style animated song to explain how the courts are designed to be free from special-interest influence.) In light of her own interests, it’s no wonder that Saladoff leaves out the common counterargument that lawyers are the ones who benefit most in tort cases.

Hot Coffee

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films release of an If Not Now Prods. and the Group Entertainment production. Produced by Susan Saladoff, Carly Hugo, Alan Oxman. Co-producer, Rebecca Saladoff. Directed by Susan Saladoff.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Martina Radwan; editor, Cindy Lee; music, Michael Mollura; sound, William S. Britt, Bayard Carey, Tyler Cartner, Johnpaul Golaski, Wil Masisak, Lorenzo Millan, Matt Sheldon, Winter Sichelschmidt, Michael J. Walls; associate producers, Erin Crumpacker, Betsy Rate. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 25, 2011. Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: With: Stella Liebeck, Nancy Tiano, Colin Gourley, Lisa Gourley, Mike Gourley, Oliver Diaz, Jamie Leigh Jones, Al Franken, Joan Claybrook, Joanne Doroshow, John Grisham, Stephanie Mencimer, Victor Schwartz, Wayne Slater.