The title of the documentary suggests the film is about the famous McDonald's "hot coffee" verdict nearly two decades ago. But the narrative includes three other strong and sad legal stories, each showing in its own way the modern-day marginalization of the American jury. Essentially, the stories merge into one theme: To avoid big jury awards, and to close the doors of courthouses on tort plaintiffs and others, corporate groups have bought and paid for like-minded politicians and jurists who, in turn, have enacted or endorsed pro-business, anti-plaintiff, anti-jury legislation.
Although it is far from a perfect documentary, Hot Coffee is a worthwhile endeavor. It tells the other side of the story of "tort reform," the de-corporatized version, about plaintiffs who have lost out in the shuffle, victims not just of negligence or corporate wrongdoing but of the inapt and inept stewardship of their jury rights. As John Grisham suggests on camera during the movie, the truth is that civil justice already has been sold, in some cases lock, stock and gavel, to the highest corporate bidder. How this has happened, and why, is the story of this film.
* * *
It's easy to blast juries over a specific case, especially when jurors, who have given up their lives for weeks or months on end without adequate compensation in the service of their country, don't give us the result we want. The job of a juror is one of the hardest and most solemn jobs a citizen ever may have in a democracy. Each day, all over the country, the jury's deliberative work is the embodiment of one of the few inherent powers of the governed over the governing.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote hundreds of years ago in glowing terms about the American jury. He saw in it both a form of grassroots democracy—individual citizens rendering judgments that became part of the body of the law—and a civic virtue—individual citizens playing a direct role in their own governance and learning from it. Thomas Jefferson took the idea one step further. In 1789, he wrote of the jury as a bulwark against the prejudices of a single judge:
We all know that permanent judges acquire an esprit de corps; that, being known, they are liable to be tempted by bribery; that they are misled by favor, by relationship, by a spirit of party, by a devotion to the executive or legislative; that it is better to leave a cause to the decision of cross and pile than to that of a judge biased to one side; and that the opinion of twelve honest jurymen gives still a better hope of right than cross and pile does.
Because of this political and legal dynamic, because of the bond Americans still have for their juries, the forces of "tort reform" decided long ago that they would gain better traction in the court of public opinion if they blamed instead for their litigation defeats "greedy" plaintiffs or, better yet, their "greedier" trial lawyers. So, instead of candidly telling voters that "tort reform" legislation takes power and control away from their beloved juries, which it does in all tort cases, the corporate tribunes told voters that the legislation would take power away in some cases from fortune-seeking plaintiffs and their lawyers. It was the functional equivalent of the ol' bait-and-switch. And it has worked for decades with devastating public-relations effect.