‘Hot Coffee’ film aims to educate the public

MIDDLEBURY — Remember Stella Leiback, an elderly woman from New Mexico who sued McDonald’s for upwards of $2 million after spilling a cup of scalding hot coffee on her lap at a drive-through? If so, you may also remember that the media worked itself into a tizzy over the Leiback case, which became something of a poster child for what some Americans perceived to be a rising trend of frivolous lawsuits.
If you don’t remember, don’t worry — most of what the media reported, including the $2 million figure, was inaccurate.
Two local women, looking to spark a discussion on so-called tort reform, are sponsoring a public screening of the award-winning HBO documentary film that tells the real story behind Leiback’s case.
“Hot Coffee” by Susan Saladoff will be screened at the Middlebury Congregational Church this Sunday, Dec. 2, at 3 p.m. It tackles what local attorney Emily Joselson, of Langrock, Sperry & Wool in Middlebury, called a “public relations barrage of so-called ‘frivolous lawsuits’ and so-called ‘tort reform.’”
“Tort” is a compensation system for civil litigation that manages compensation and damages. Proponents of tort reform generally want to cap the circumstances that citizens could sue for damages under, or the amount that complainants could be awarded.
Joselson, along with friend Patricia Chase, is sponsoring the screening of the film, which premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and won Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival in the same year.
The idea to show the film to the broader community was born out of a conversation between the two, who volunteer together at the ACT teen center in Middlebury. Joselson couldn’t remember exactly how it had come up, but she recalled that Chase had made a comment about the “hot coffee case” that made it clear that she thought it was frivolous.
Joselson urged Chase to watch the documentary film for some more context, as it cleared up many factual errors and contextualized the debate around tort reform that the filmmakers felt the media had misrepresented. After some thought, the community-minded duo decided to make it a public screening.
“We all want to be informed citizens,” Joselson said.
Joselson believes that the film educates the public about crucial issues that public relations efforts by large corporations have largely succeeded at misleading them about. She noted that, as a lawyer, she often finds herself explaining common misconceptions to friends and family members who think that mechanisms are in place for citizens to sue a company for the smallest detail.
The film, she said, will be a good opportunity to open the discussion to the broader community.
“The movie is incredibly accessible,” she said. “On each of the four issues (public relations campaigns, caps on damages, judicial elections and mandatory arbitration) that are threatening our civil justice system.”

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