Former President George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce play the scheming villains in a new documentary about the pitfalls of the U.S. civil justice system, while Sen. Al Franken plays the knight in shining armor.
Hot Coffee, a film festival darling that premieres on HBO Monday night, portrays the other side of the heated debate over tort reform, which is the effort to end so-called frivolous lawsuits and limit what people can gain from personal injury lawsuits.
Starting with the infamous—and, the film shows, wildly misinterpreted—McDonald’s coffee case, in which a woman sued the fast food joint after a scalding cup of coffee spilled on her lap, the film seeks to expose big business’s role in limiting individuals’ right to the court system and limiting a jury’s ability to decide what compensation a victim of negligence or malpractice deserves.
The film has Rove, Bush, and the Chamber of Commerce continuously fighting to protect big business over the little guy, and documents the Chamber bankrolling business-friendly candidates in state Supreme Court judicial elections while brutally attacking their opponents.
The media gets slammed, too, for its role in propagating errant details about court cases without fact-checking.
Franken’s heroism comes in the last segment of the film, in which he fights for the right to a day in court for Jamie Leigh Jones, now 26, who, while working for the government contractor Halliburton/KBR in Iraq six years ago, was allegedly drugged and gang-raped by her colleagues, then locked in a shipping container. Since a clause in her employment contract required any disputes be resolved by arbitration—essentially settling out of court in private proceedings—she couldn’t take her case to trial.
Fighting mandatory arbitration is a new passion for Franken, who currently has a bill in the Senate that would get rid of those kinds of agreements in contracts altogether. Speaking before a prerelease screening of Hot Coffee in Washington, D.C., the former Saturday Night Live star said he wasn’t thrilled when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid first assigned him to the Judiciary Committee, since he isn’t a lawyer and plenty of other senators are. “I did not know what mandatory arbitration really meant,” he said, then joked: “Well, I’d heard it, I knew what it meant—I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not an idiot.”
Because of Franken’s efforts, Jones’s trial began last week.