Hot Coffee, a new documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, looks at the stories of four people whose lives were devastated when they were denied access to the courtroom after being injured. The film documents how corporations have spent millions to promote the case for tort reform. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival. We’re broadcasting from its headquarters, the nation’s largest festival for independent cinema. We’re spending the hour on Hot Coffee, a documentary that premiered here at Sundance. Let’s go to another excerpt.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, “tort reform” is a term drummed up by some of the advertising people for the business sector, which is to limit the likelihood that you can bring a lawsuit.
JOANNE DOROSHOW: It is essentially laws that restrict people’s rights to go to court.
ALEX WINSLOW: I don’t think that the term — I’m not going to say it. I just — I won’t say the word “tort reform,” that phrase, because I don’t think that it is an accurate representation of what’s really going on.
VICTOR SCHWARTZ: Ralph Nader calls it “tort deform.” So, I guess reform is in the eyes of the beholder. But if you want to change a system, which had become, in the late 1970s, very, very pro-plaintiff, in the view of some, if you want to change it, usually the word “reform” is used.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: This big push to publicize the McDonald’s case came in the midst of an attempt to pass federal legislation that was going to limit the consumer’s right to go to court. It meant that there could be caps on damages, that there were going to be all sorts of changes in the rules of what you could do in order to bring a case into court. And so there was this humongous campaign by industry attempting to affect juries, but also attempting to affect senators. And the McDonald’s case became the poster child for what’s wrong with people going to court and suing.
MICHAEL McCANN: We looked at the congressional hearings about the tort reform bill, and we found that the most common reference to justify tort reform was the McDonald’s coffee case. There were not many statistical studies. The primary reference was, everybody knows the McDonald’s coffee case, therefore we need tort reform.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new documentary Hot Coffee. And we’re joined by the film’s director, Susan Saladoff. She spent 25 years as a public interest lawyer representing victims of corporate negligence.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Susan.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Judge Oliver Diaz. He is featured in the film. And we’ll get to his story in minute. But we’ve just watched Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen and others talking about this issue of tort reform. We started with the story of Hot Coffee. Lay out why you’re doing this.
SUSAN SALADOFF: There has been a huge public relations campaign over the last 25 years to convince the public that we have too many frivolous lawsuits, that we have out-of-control juries, that we need to change our civil justice system, which is our third branch of government, where an average person can go head-to-head with the rich and powerful, with corporations. And people have a completely distorted view of our civil justice system because of this public relations campaign. And I wanted to tell the truth. I wanted people to understand that they were giving up their constitutional rights every day to access the courts, and they didn’t even know they were doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain tort. What do you mean by tort?
SUSAN SALADOFF: So a tort is a civil wrong. We have a criminal justice system and a civil justice system. We all know what the criminal justice system is. But when people are injured by a defective product or if they’ve had, you know, been the victim of a medical negligence, they have the right to go into a court system and bring a case against the person or the entity, the corporation, that harmed them. Those kinds of injuries are called torts. They’re civil harms.
AMY GOODMAN: You profile four cases. One of those cases is one that a number of people have heard of, but I don’t think they would have thought of it as an issue of corporate malfeasance. And it’s the case of Jamie Leigh Jones. Explain her case.
SUSAN SALADOFF: So, Jamie Leigh Jones was 19 years old. She lived in Houston, Texas. And Halliburton is huge in Houston. I mean, it’s like the biggest corporation down there. And she went to work for Halliburton in their IT department. And when she was hired, she was asked to sign an employment contract. What she didn’t know was that embedded in the employment contract is something called a mandatory arbitration clause. These clauses are in all of our contracts now. They’re in our cell phone contracts, our credit card contracts, if you get a car loan, a mortgage. Some doctors are now putting them in their consent clauses.
What they are is they are literally contracts, where people are asked to sign — oftentimes they don’t even have a choice to sign. If you get a credit card, for example, and you use it, you’ve agreed to mandatory arbitration. People don’t even know what it means, because it’s something — no dispute has happened yet. But if you have agreed to that and then you have a dispute with the company or the entity, you have waived your right to the court system. And people say, “Well, why should I care about that?” Well, why you should care is because the company that you are having the dispute with, once you’ve signed that, they pick the decision maker, the arbitrator, they pay for the decision maker, the decision maker doesn’t have to give a reason why they’ve come up with the decision, it’s completely secretive, and there’s no right to appeal. And what everyone is doing these days is they are literally voluntarily giving up their right to access the court system, and they don’t even know they’re doing it.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip right now of Jamie Leigh Jones, speaking herself.
JOSEPH KALLAN DAIGLE: Did she get any on her head?
JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Yes. That doesn’t go on your head, baby girl. Silly!
JOSEPH KALLAN DAIGLE: You thirsty? You want a drink, hon?
JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Oh, yeah, kind of.
JOSEPH KALLAN DAIGLE: Chocolate milk, orange juice, milk?
JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Mmm, I’ll have Coke.
JOSEPH KALLAN DAIGLE: A Coke for breakfast, huh?
JAMIE LEIGH JONES: Uh-huh.
JOSEPH KALLAN DAIGLE: Alright. Here you go. I’m going to have me an orange juice.
JAMIE LEIGH JONES: I had never heard of a mandatory arbitration clause before I had signed my employment contract with Halliburton. I worked for Halliburton in Houston, and I wanted to help Operation Iraqi Freedom. My mom was very sick at home, so I needed to help support her. They say it’s more likely that you get in a car wreck than something happening to you in Iraq. So, as a 19-year-old girl, you believe your elders, and you think that that’s probably true. So…
SEN. AL FRANKEN: Four years ago at the age of 19, Ms. Jamie Leigh Jones signed a contract to become an employee of KBR, then a Halliburton subsidiary. That contract contained a clause which required her to arbitrate any future dispute against her employer. This means it forced her to give up her right to seek redress in court if she was wronged.
WOMAN ON THE STREET 1: Mandatory arbitration is how — somebody has to be involved in the case, isn’t it or something? Because arbitration is how the case is — oh, it has something to do with case files.
MAN ON THE STREET 1: Have you heard it?
MAN ON THE STREET 2: No.
MAN ON THE STREET 1: I’ve heard the two words used separately.
MAN ON THE STREET 2: That’s right.
JOAN CLAYBROOK: Businesses use a number of devices to keep the public out of the courts. One of the devices they’ve used is they’ve written clauses into contracts that say that you cannot go to court, you can only go to arbitration.
PAUL BLAND: What we started to see was, again and again, our clients had been forced to sign, in fine print of contracts, these mandatory arbitration or forced arbitration clauses. And none of our clients knew that those provisions were there. And then, it was only after we got hold of their documents that we would say to them, “Hey, did you know you supposedly agreed that you are not allowed to sue the company? Do you know that you agreed that instead of going to a jury, that you have to go to a private arbitrator, who is with a company that’s picked by the company who cheated you?”
ALEX WINSLOW: And when you ask people about binding arbitration and would you knowingly sign away your rights, they say, “Well, of course not.” And then you ask them, “Well, do you have a cell phone? Do you have a gym membership? Do you have — you know, do you have a credit card?”
SUSAN SALADOFF: Do you know whether you’ve ever agreed to mandatory arbitration in any of your contracts?
MAN ON THE STREET 3: I don’t believe I ever have, no.
SUSAN SALADOFF: Do you own a credit — do you have a credit card?
MAN ON THE STREET 3: Well, maybe I have.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Hot Coffee, talking about the case of Jamie Leigh Jones. Susan Saladoff is the filmmaker. She is going to trial in May?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Well, as a result of Senator Franken’s bill before the Senate, Halliburton has dropped their appeal, and now she has a court trial scheduled for May of 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: A remarkable story.
SUSAN SALADOFF: It’s unbelievable. But it’s happening — I mean, even though she represents sort of an extreme of what happens in a mandatory arbitration clause, it’s really happening to all of us. And we need to know that as a society. We need to tell Congress to stop these mandatory arbitration clauses from being in all these contracts.
AMY GOODMAN: Susan, why don’t you introduce the man sitting next to you?
SUSAN SALADOFF: This is Judge Oliver Diaz. Judge Diaz actually was a justice of the Mississippi State Supreme Court until he was targeted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for defeat because he wasn’t corporate enough.
AMY GOODMAN: OK, Judge Diaz, tell us your story and what happened.
OLIVER DIAZ: Well, I think people are very familiar with elections in America, and for years you’ve had corporations donating to the executive branch, presidents and governors, of the legislative branch, your House of Representatives and Senate. You’ve had massive amounts of funding, and people expect that when you have elections.
The judiciary, the judicial branch of government, has been separate from that for years and years. But what we’ve seen lately are these corporations coming in, putting money into judicial races, and they’re promoting candidates who tend to support corporate interest rather than a fair, level playing field for average persons. They’re actually putting money into the system in order to get people serving on the bench who would rule in the best interests of corporations rather than a fair judiciary.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about exactly what happened to you. You were running for your position —
OLIVER DIAZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — judge.
OLIVER DIAZ: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was your opponent?
OLIVER DIAZ: Well, in Mississippi, Supreme Court elections are — Supreme Court races are by popular election. And I was appointed by the governor when there was a vacancy on the court and then had to stand for election. Folks had a chance to observe my judicial record, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce decided that they could get a better candidate for their interests rather than me. And they came into Mississippi at a time when this had never been done before and put millions of dollars into the election against me to support my opponent. It’s sort of —- if you’re familiar with the Citizens United case at the U.S. Supreme Court recently, corporations were able to contribute massive amounts of money without having to disclose where those funds come from or even how much money they’ve put into the races in Mississippi. And so, I was faced with having to run an election with massive amounts of money coming in against me and having to raise the resources on my own to [inaudible] -—
AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you did have to disclose who gave you money.
OLIVER DIAZ: I had to disclose every single penny that I raised. I had to disclose who I raised it from, how I spent it. Yet, corporations are able to come in and not have to disclose where their money comes from or how they spend it. Yeah, it’s really a disadvantage for candidates. And it’s going to start happening all across the country. This is not unique to Mississippi. This is the trend that’s going to happen across the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you won.
OLIVER DIAZ: I won. I did. I did win my first election.
AMY GOODMAN: Though, as your wife says in the film, what perhaps was one of the happiest days in your lives turned out to be one of the most catastrophic in the end.
OLIVER DIAZ: Exactly. We were able to prevail. Actually, it was a very close election, and it went into a runoff. There were three candidates, and we were in the top two, and we had to face a runoff. We ran for — in the election, which was three weeks after the general election, and were able to win in the runoff. But after the election, the U.S. attorney, who was appointed by George Bush — was a Republican congressman, a guy who had gotten defeated for Congress, and George Bush put him in for U.S. attorney — he then began to investigate Democratic donors to judicial races in Mississippi and began a prosecution of me at that time, a prosecution based upon my campaign contributions.
AMY GOODMAN: And indicted you?
OLIVER DIAZ: And indicted, yes. I was indicted for bribery, actually, based upon the campaign contributions, because I had to disclose my campaign contributions. They were able to see who donated. They looked at my largest contributor, which was a very good friend of mine named Paul Minor. He was actually a major Democratic donor across the United States. He was one of John Edwards’ largest contributors at the time. And they began to investigate —
AMY GOODMAN: He co-signed a loan that you needed to take out to challenge the millions that your opponent was getting.
OLIVER DIAZ: Exactly. We weren’t able to raise enough to combat these millions that were coming in, and so we took out a loan from the bank. Mr. Minor co-signed that loan for my campaign. Because he was such a good friend of mine, I had never voted on a single case that he had before the Mississippi Supreme Court or me while I was on the bench. Yet, we were being investigated for bribery. I thought it was — I thought it would be an open-and-shut case. I said, “There’s no way they could even pursue this. They’re going to look at the record, and they’re going to see that I’ve never even voted on his cases.”
AMY GOODMAN: But this took you off the bench.
OLIVER DIAZ: Took me off the bench for over three years.
AMY GOODMAN: And who replaced you?
OLIVER DIAZ: Well, I had to stand for election again. And again, the Chamber came in, put massive amounts of money against me, and I was defeated in the second election, because of — well, you could imagine the publicity that I had received while I was on the bench, and it was very difficult to overcome that.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened in the trial?
OLIVER DIAZ: I was completely acquitted in the trial. The jury found me not guilty of everything.
AMY GOODMAN: How long was the trial?
OLIVER DIAZ: The trial lasted about three months.
AMY GOODMAN: How long was the jury deliberation?
OLIVER DIAZ: The jury deliberation in the first trial, it lasted for a little while. We were completely acquitted. Three days after I was acquitted, I was re-indicted again. The federal prosecutor said, “Well, if it’s not bribery or campaign finance laws, he must have — he must have not properly disclosed this on his income, so we’re going to indict him for income tax evasion now.” I was tried again, completely acquitted. Jury was out for about 15 minutes and found me not guilty of everything again.
AMY GOODMAN: But you lost the race.
OLIVER DIAZ: But did lose the race in the second time, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did your opponent — did the original opponent end up in your seat?
OLIVER DIAZ: The original opponent, actually, I think he probably fared a little better. After I defeated him in the election, George Bush nominated him for a federal judgeship, and he’s now serving as a federal judge.
AMY GOODMAN: Did Karl Rove play any role in this? Because we have followed the case of the former Alabama governor, Don Siegelman —
OLIVER DIAZ: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — who went to jail, and Rove played a key role.
OLIVER DIAZ: Yes. You would be surprised at the similarities in the cases. We’ve since learned that this is sort of the MO that the Rove and the — his machine actually used. They came into the state of Texas and took over the Supreme Court there. Alabama, they did the same thing. And they used that as a launching pad to sort of pick off state Supreme Court justices all around the country, using that model.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. People can learn more about this case by seeing the film Hot Coffee that has premiered here at Sundance. Thirty seconds, Susan Saladoff, before we go to break and come back to the last family that you focus on, a very painful story of medical malpractice, and the whole family will join us, but what you hope to accomplish in this film?
SUSAN SALADOFF: Well, I want this film to get out to a general public, so that people can at least have their minds opened to another side of this story of our civil justice system, so that they can vote intelligently, so that they can talk about it intelligently. I want the truth to finally come out, so that hopefully people can protect their civil rights and protect their access to the courts.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Judge — former Judge Oliver Diaz and Susan Saladoff, a first-time filmmaker with this remarkable film Hot Coffee. You can go to hotcoffeethemovie.com. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, well, stay there, listen to this story. We’ll be back in a minute.