Hot Coffee Premieres on HBO June 27
Documentary examines threats to our civil justice system
By J. Michael End

Everyone seems to have heard about the McDonald's coffee case.  An elderly woman spills coffee on herself that she purchased from a McDonald's drive-up window, right?  Seventeen years later, its infamy continues.  It is routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America's legal system, but is that the real story?

A new movie, Hot Coffee, reveals the facts of the case and what really happened to the elderly Albuquerque woman, Stella Liebeck, who spilled the coffee and sued McDonald's.  It looks at the legal case and explores how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded that effort, and to what end.

Hot Coffee premieres on HBO on Monday, June 27, at 8:00 p.m. CDT.  I encourage everyone to watch it and learn the truth about the McDonald's case.  The film had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and has been featured at film festivals throughout the U.S., in Canada and Israel.  The reviews have been fantastic.  The film just won the top Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Seattle Film Festival.  Many have noted how little they really understood about the McDonald's case and its impact on people who seek justice through our court system.

The film looks at the groups behind the efforts to undermine our civil justice system.  In Wisconsin we know the influence that corporations now assert over all branches of our government.  Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Koch brothers (Charles and David) have provided millions of dollars to elect candidates that will promote their anti-consumer agenda.

The very first bill introduced by Governor Walker in the Special Session on "Jobs" dealt with taking away peoples' rights.  The new law shields access to incident reports, like the one created for the Milwaukee nursing home resident who died after being left outside in oppressive heat for almost four hours.  Such reports will no longer be admissible in evidence to prove misconduct by nursing homes.  They will also be unavailable to district attorneys looking into potential criminal abuse of nursing home residents. 

Most directly related to the McDonald's case, the new law limits the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded against corporate misconduct, no matter how egregious.

The film also looks at the impact of business contributions on judicial campaigns.  In addition to spending millions for legislative races, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, WMC and the Koch Foundation promote the election of state judges sympathetic to business interests. We have seen the explosion in judicial campaign spending by business groups here in Wisconsin in recent Supreme Court elections.

Watch Hot Coffee the movie on June 27. (If you can't watch it then, check HBO's schedule, it will be shown several times in June and July.)  Invite family, friends and colleagues to see it with you.  After seeing this film, you can decide who really profited from spilling hot coffee - Ms. Liebeck or corporate America?

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J. Michael End is the President of the Wisconsin Association for Justice, the state's largest statewide voluntary bar organization. The Wisconsin Association for Justice stands with consumers to promote a fair and effective justice system for every citizen, not just the privileged and wealthy.

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