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Hot Coffee Hazardous to Justice in Wyoming?

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Friday, June 24, 2011   

CHEYENNE, Wyo. - A new documentary aims to put to rest the long-running rumors about the McDonald's "hot-coffee case" and traces how misinformation about the case was used in a campaign to limit consumer lawsuits.

Nearly 20 years ago, Wyoming media was abuzz over the case, in which an elderly woman was awarded millions of dollars after suffering third-degree burns when a McDonald's coffee spilled in her lap. Many jokes circulated about the verdict, but the documentary, which premieres Monday on HBO, shows that it was no laughing matter for the woman involved - or for any consumer.

"Hot Coffee" director Susan Saladoff connects how misinformation spread about the case contributed to the rise of forced-arbitration clauses and tort reform.

"I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted people to understand that they were giving up their constitutional rights every day, and they didn't even know they were doing it."

When Wyomingites use a credit card, sign up for a cell phone or place a loved one in a nursing home, the fine print contains an "arbitration clause" which waives the signer's right to take a company to court for wrongdoing, injuries or death. The clauses are promoted as a way to keep prices low for consumers and protect against frivolous lawsuits. The hot-coffee case often is cited as a frivolous suit.

Attorney Bryan Ulmer, president of the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association, saw the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. He says the reactions in the audience were notable when photos of the woman's injuries were shown - and when the dots were connected between distorted information about the case and the campaign to limit consumer court rights.

"Shocked about how we, as the public, have been misinformed and manipulated by persons who would weaken public access to justice for their own monetary gain."

Saladoff has been criticized as not being objective enough while making the documentary. She was an attorney for 20 years.

More information is online at the film's website, HotCoffeeTheMovie.com.


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