On the evening of Wednesday, February 29th, the Harrisburg Student Bar Association
and Schmidt Kramer PC hosted a special screening of “Hot Coffee: Is Justice Being Served” followed by a live chat with the film’s director, Susan Saladoff.
The event began with a cocktail reception in the Administration Building’s Reception Room at 5:15 p.m. to honor Scott Cooper, a 1993 Graduate of Widener Law’s Harrisburg campus and the President-elect of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice. Students and Faculty were able to mingle with attorneys before the event over hors d'oeuvres and wine.
Cooper, who practices at Schmidt Kramer, attended the reception with his wife and children. Members of his firm also attended and the School of Law is grateful for their generous support of the event.
Cooper said he was thankful to have studied at Widener Law and to now have a fulfilling career as an attorney, doing important work for injured people.
“We all only have one life and one chance,” he said, recalling an emotional case he once handled. “The thing I like about what we do, we really believe in it – it’s not just a job.”
The screening of “Hot Coffee” started at 6:15 p.m. The documentary examines the potential impact of tort reform on the judicial system, focusing on the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case (Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants). It also looks at three other cases; Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit concerning caps on damages, the Prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and judicial elections, and Jamie Leigh Johns v. Halliburton regarding mandatory arbitration clauses. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 and aired on HBO.
Producer and Director Susan Saladoff, who spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system representing the injured victims of individual and corporate negligence, joined the audience via Skype in after the screening of the film. Saladoff said that for most people the film is an eye opener, adding that a common response is, “I’m an educated person – why didn’t I know this?”
Saladoff indicated that aside from the American Tort Reform Association and a few bloggers, she has not received any negative feedback. “I think people get that I am telling the truth. This is my truth,” she said.
She recommended to the audience that they cross out arbitration clauses in agreements that they sign, saying, “We need to take the mandatory arbitration clauses out of contracts.” When asked about doing a sequel to Hot Coffee, Saladoff offered to give the job to another attorney in the audience.
Following the Director’s remarks, the General Counsel to the American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), Victor Schwartz, also joined the audience via Skype. A major lobbying group advocating for tort reform, ATRA is highly criticized in the film. Schwartz is featured in a few segments of the film, defending ATRA’s point of view. He provided the opposing view, suggesting that tort reform is necessary.
Schwartz explained that the real issue in the McDonald’s case was about warning, and he mentioned that McDonald’s didn’t have to pay any other verdicts other than Liebeck’s. Saladoff countered that there were 700 other coffee burn claims against McDonalds over 10 years. However, Schwartz felt that this was not as significant as the movie made it seem, saying, “McDonalds makes 1 billion cups of coffee a year. That’s 10 billion in 10 years. Only one out of a million cases does someone spill coffee on themselves. Things go wrong. Should you change your behavior for something that goes wrong one out of a million times?”
Saladoff did not agree and argued that there were more than 700 claims. She explained that prior to the Liebeck case, there was another woman who sued McDonald’s for the same reason and it was settled outside court. Her name was not on the claim list though and therefore Saladoff insinuated that there were more claims then McDonald’s acknowledge.