Beyond Spilled Coffee
For 25 years, attorney Susan Vogel Saladoff, JD '83, thought she could change the world one client at a time. She doesn't doubt that strategy, but now she has found something faster. She is going to change the world one documentary movie at a time.
Ms. Saladoff spent the past two and a half years working on Hot Coffee, one of 16 documentaries selected for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the only one picked up by HBO. That's a remarkable record, considering that Hot Coffee is Ms. Saladoff's first film. And that the film is about tort reform.
"It wasn't that I necessarily wanted to make a movie. When this began, I simply was setting out to tell a story," she says. "A lot of people tried to discourage me. 'No one is going to see a movie about tort reform' was what they said. But I could already see the film in my head."
Reviews concluded that she did a fine job of transferring the film from her head to the screen.
"Director Susan Saladoff is a lawyer, and she marshals a compelling case against the corporate interests who push 'tort reform' and other tricks to game the civil justice system against the average citizen," according to a review in The Salt Lake Tribune. "The movie uses four horrific cases—including the infamous McDonald's hot coffee case—to make points about the way corporations create public-relations distortions, lobby for caps on damages, donate to business-friendly judicial candidates, and hide mandatory arbitration in contracts (check your cell phone plan, kiddies) to insulate themselves from accountability.
"Then Saladoff leaves the verdict for you, the movie-going jury, to decide."
The Hollywood Reporter described the film as a "strong brew, a scalding documentary on tort reform that should stir up your blood pressure faster than a triple espresso." In Sarasota, Fla., the Herald-Tribune noted that "like Michael Moore, who would probably love her results, Saladoff isn't afraid to let her bias show in a story about how the judicial system has been slowly beaten down and taken away from average citizens by corporate and political interests."
Indeed, the documentary was screened at Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Festival in July.
Ms. Saladoff outlined the most unsettling examples of so-called tort reform she could find and then set out to find the corresponding human stories.
"I chose the McDonald's coffee case because everybody thinks they know that case and nobody really has a clue what that case is about," explains Ms. Saladoff about the 1990s lawsuit in which 79-year-old Stella Liebeck sued McDonald's after spilling coffee from the drive-through in her lap and receiving third-degree burns that required skin-grafting.
Ms. Saladoff also detailed the story of former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, who was acquitted of charges that Ms. Saladoff believes were politically motivated. Although he was cleared, his career was ruined. And Ms. Saladoff visited the Gourley family, who has twin sons, one with cerebral palsy. A $5.6 million verdict to provide for the child with disabilities was reduced to $1.25 million because of caps on damages laws. The movie shows the stunning impact of that decision.
Ms. Saladoff used the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a Halliburton/KBR employee in Iraq, to show what happens when you sign a contract with a mandatory arbitration clause. The 19-year-old Jones alleged that she was gang-raped and held captive by co-workers in Iraq—indeed, the film says the State Department had to rescue her—but her contract blocked her from court action against KBR in the United States. Meanwhile, foreign contract employees have no redress in Iraq's criminal courts.
Ms. Jones' case went to trial in July. Although she was not successful at trial, her fight highlighted how mandatory arbitration clauses are used to prevent average Americans from getting access to our court systems. And thanks to an amendment ushered through Congress by U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who appears in Hot Coffee, the 2010 defense appropriations bill withholds defense contracts from companies like KBR if they restrict employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery, and discrimination cases to court.
Ms. Saladoff acknowledged an irony: She was required to sign an arbitration clause in order for her film to be screened at Sundance.
To make the movie, the lawyer filmed one case at a time, collecting financial support (and a couple of grants) along the way. She also did her homework, rounding up an exceptional team to help with the filming and editing.
Ms. Saladoff planned to make her movie during a one-year sabbatical, but she ended up leaving Davis, Hearn, Saladoff & Bridges (now Davis, Hearn & Bridges) in Ashland, Ore. Now, two-and-a-half years later, she has another documentary movie idea in the works, though she won't reveal details except to say that it examines the work of a European lawyer who has taken terrorism cases to civil court.
Ms. Saladoff's journey to filmmaker has been an unusual one. A self-described math and science geek in high school, she began an undergraduate career at Cornell University as a biochemistry major but graduated with a degree in the history of science, then headed to New York to try her hand as a Broadway singer. "While I was in New York, I took the LSAT. I always have a backup plan," she said with a laugh.
She ended up in Washington—and at GW Law School—because she thought she might make a future run for Congress, representing her home state, Pennsylvania. When she graduated from GW, she went to work for Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, now known as Public Justice.
Ms. Saladoff is now traveling the film festival circuit, accompanying the movie to screenings from New Orleans to Toronto to L.A. Late June's calendar included a screening in D.C., attended by several of the filmmaker's GW Law professors (see below).
The documentary is eligible for an Oscar nomination, and premiered on HBO in June.
—Mary A. Dempsey