As the crowds filed out of the theatre, the buzz was tangible.
It didn’t come from caffeine…but it did come from Hot Coffee, the award-winning documentary that had its Canadian premiere at SilverCity Ancaster on Thursday April 25, 2013 courtesy of Findlay Personal Injury Lawyers.
More than 100 people attended—friends, colleagues, clients and the curious. Before the show they picked up hot-off-the-press copies of a new book by Robert Findlay called “It’s No Accident”—a must-read guide to Ontario car accident insurance claims—and Findlay’s premiere issue of Care magazine. Check out some photos below.
After the show, the talk was all about the movie.
In some cases, viewers had their minds opened to issues they hadn’t thought much about in the past. One occupational therapist said the messages were particularly relevant, given her work with injured clients. For others it was fuel for already well-stoked fires, given their personal experiences with the courts. A student in the audience was particularly moved by the stories told in the movie. “I found myself tearing up,” she said. “I can’t believe what these people went through.”
Host of the evening and local personal injury lawyer, Robert Findlay, opened the event with a clear message: if you’ve been harmed by someone else, no one should be able to take away your day in court.
Hot Coffee uses four stories to shine a startling light on the dark methods big business is using to weaken the U.S. civil justice system. The civil courts are pretty much the only place average citizens can seek justice from otherwise exceedingly powerful institutions, like corporations, on a somewhat level playing field.
The courts bring David closer to Goliath. Corporations want to take away the slingshot.
Story number one features Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque grandmother who spilled hot coffee on her lap and successfully sued McDonald’s. We’ve all heard about Stella and the “millions” she won. What we don’t know is the carefully calculated and brilliantly orchestrated public relations campaign that made her the poster child for lazy, irresponsible fortune-hunters whose “frivolous lawsuits” make everyone else pay the price.
Stella wasn’t driving when she spilled her coffee. Her third-degree burns, says her surgeon, could have killed her. Her $2.7 million award was based on the fact that the jury felt McDonald’s had blatantly disregarded consumer safety by failing to do anything to prevent a situation that had been brought to their attention many times before–but the judge reduced the amount to less than $500,000. Stella’s first tactic was to ask McDonald’s to cover her medical bills and put a better lid on their coffee so it wouldn’t happen to anyone else (they offered $800 when her bills had already exceeded $10,000).
Misinformation about Stella’s case was spread liberally across the country by The American Tort Reform Association, who created a fake citizen group—Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA)—that urged everyday Americans to contact the legislature to stop “jackpot justice” and “lottery lawsuits” like Stella’s. CALA didn’t have any members. It was run through a PR firm that was spending massive amounts of money on ads financed by big business members of the American Tort Reform Association, including tobacco companies.
No one knows this stuff. Until they watch Hot Coffee.
The other three stories cover caps on damages, mandatory arbitration contracts and the tale of Oliver Diaz, the Mississippi Supreme Court judge who lost his seat because of a U.S. Chamber of Commerce-backed campaign to smear his reputation. Diaz wasn’t considered pro-business enough for the Chamber. But his story was good enough to form the basis of John Grisham’s book, The Appeal.
Findlay’s showing of the documentary was timely. According to the Ontario New Democratic Party, recent changes to Ontario’s auto insurance have reduced the amount insurance companies have paid to accident victims by close to $2 billion in 2011. As Hot Coffee reminds us, these “savings” don’t get passed along to everyday folks in the form of reduced premiums. Instead, they’re used to boost the bottom line of businesses and keep shareholders happy. “We’re seeing caps to benefits and more and more injuries are being classified as minor,” says Rob Findlay. “People in car accidents are getting very little support for recovery and insurance companies are saving millions.”
No one cares about the civil justice system until something bad happens to them, says journalist, author and Hot Coffee commentator, Stephanie Mencamer. But it’s a fundamental right, and the only way we have to hold others accountable for harming us, says Joanne Doroshow, executive director of the Center for Justice and Democracy. It’s also the reason, in the States at least, that consumers can feel confident that toys are safe for children and cars are safe to drive.
The movie closes with these words: “When somebody goes to court, they’re doing something extraordinary that is hidden. To go to court and to sue is not a simple procedure. You have to go through a lot of trouble to do it. It affects your life. You’re going to be attacked in all kinds of ways. Going to court to gain justice is heroic. That idea has to be out there. When you quote ‘win a case,’ you win it for other people, as well as gaining justice for yourself.”
It takes courage to seek justice. After watching Hot Coffee, it’s clear why.
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