Review of Hot Coffee

Picture a world where a rapist can execute a contract in advance, limiting his liability for his deeds, and furthermore, forbidding his victims access to the courts for reparations.  Such a contract would limit any such “trial” to an informal hearing before a friend of the rapist.  Which way do you think that friend will decide?  Exactly.  Some world, right?  Guess what?  You already live in it.

But, you say, I would never sign such a contract.  I would never give away my right to go to court.  Even for less serious matters, I would not sign my rights away.  You probably wouldn’t.  Or, at least, you wouldn’t knowingly sign such a contract, or you wouldn’t if you had a choice.  The thing is, if you have a credit card or cellphone, you’ve already signed such a contract.

Nice world, right?

Hot Coffee is a documentary which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and is now airing on HBO.  Hot Coffee explores these recent phenomena in a succinct and easy to understand style.  The exposition of the facts has clever cuts to people-on-the-street interviews that further underscore the average person’s misconceptions.  I count myself among those possessors of common misconceptions.  These interviews helped me feel less ignorant, or less alone in my ignorance.  Thank you, Director Susan Saladoff, for that.

It wasn’t surprising to me that none of the interviewees could define a tort.  In law school we spent a semester exploring what a tort is.  Many fine legal minds will refuse to put an absolute definition on the term.  The one I decided to live with is “actionable civil wrong.”  That is to say, a tort is a harm for which a lawsuit can be filed.  Examples of torts include slander, libel, malpractice, negligence, and product liability.

But the public misconceptions run deeper than legalese and esoterica.  How did we arrive at these misconceptions?  Is it merely collective indifference?  Perhaps, in part.  But a larger share of the blame goes to the Karl Roves of the world, and their clients, Messrs. Reagan and Bush, and many more.  More particularly, it’s the result of the Rovian’s effective spin-doctoring.

You see, it turns out corporations like candidates who will push for laws which limit their liability.  Corporations give those candidates tons of money.  And politicians like money.  Money gets them into office.  Plus, as the Supreme Court has held: money is speech.  Throw in 2010’s Citizen’s United decision, which held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited, and that money-speech has no boundaries.  So who has a bigger megaphone, you and I, or those with corporate backing?

One of the scary parts is the corporations aren’t satisfied with electing Representatives, Senators, Governors, and Presidents.  Oh no.  Those people only create and enact the laws.  But the laws can be overturned by courts.  So the corporations help fund the elections of judges too.  Now that’s REALLY scary.  Get enough judges on a state supreme court, and those laws will be upheld.  And the corporations will save money.  It’s a sound investment for the corporations, with a solid rate of return.

Now it’s not like you’ll see “Joe Smith for Supreme Court, sponsored by Coca Cola.”  No.  First the corporations fund the US Chamber of Commerce, or ATRA (Association for Tort Reform), and then they in turn finance a whole slew of organizations that look like our neighbors started them, such as Citizens Against Frivolous Lawsuits, or Moms Against Bad Judges.  It’s all very convincing.  These people know what they’re doing.

The spin-doctors have a simple scheme.  Coin a phrase that people can rally to, and pound the point home with truckloads of cash and highly visible speakers.  “Tort Reform” is an excellent example.  The phrase is catchy.  People can rally to it, especially when they don’t know exactly what a tort is, and the spin-doctors choose their archetypes cannily.  They leave out key facts, and make caricatures of the lawsuits.  Hot Coffee explores examples of this very well.  And “Reform”?  Who isn’t for reform?  Reform is about changing things that are horribly wrong.  However, if you were a victim of corporate misbehavior, you wouldn’t see the tort system as being horribly wrong.  But once you’re a victim, it’s too late.  They count on that.  And it works.

Some hold we need tort “reform.”  And they paint an appealing case for it.  Sure, sign on.  Feel good.  Help save the poor “victims” of tort law, such as tobacco companies who promote products known to be deadly and addictive, and carmakers who ignore defects in their vehicles which kill people.  You can support that, right?  I didn’t think so.  Torts help redress prior wrongs and prevent future wrongs.  We need that.  Perhaps the more accurate phrasing of what the Rovians are trying to do is Tort Deform.

Do we want to live in a Corpocracy?  A Corporation Nation?  Do we already?  Should their voices be louder than ours?  Should their “votes” count more?  See the excellent documentary, Hot Coffee, and decide for yourself.


13 Responses to “Review of Hot Coffee”

  1. The problem is that corporatism is really just mercantilism in a different suit. Mercantilism was largely eradicated from the mid 19th Century, till 1929, when it resurfaced after 80 or so years of clawing back. Mercantilism being nothing more than powerful pecuniary interests using their relationship with the king or government to maintain an unfair advantage in the global scheme, at the direct expense of the general population. Sound familiar?

    So now we have a broken apparatus where elite powers, many of them cloaked in corporate garb, create the laws and elect the government. It was never more obvious than the looting of the system in 2008, and the still-lingering recession/depression. It’s precisely what the framers of the Constitution were seeking to escape, and in the future, avoid.

    Didn’t work so well.

    And that in a nutshell is why democracies ultimately always devolve into fascism or complete disorder.

  2. Fleur Ferris says:

    An interesting article John. Thanks for sharing. We are going to try to get hold of the documentary.



  3. sjhigbee says:

    Thank you for an interesting article – it certainly sounds like a film worth watching and the whole issues throws up the disturbing scenarios that you mention.

    I’m wary of rolling out the notion that Russell Blake supports, of democracy being a broken reed because it has become enmeshed in capitalism. Powerful vested interests in the late 19th & early 20th centuries spent a great deal of money ensuring that the American people coupled democracy and capitalism, so that the phrases now seem to go together naturally. In actual fact, there is absolutely nothing democratic about capitalist principles – the majority of profits go to a small group of people, who structure their businesses for the sole purpose of maximising those profits, regardless of the environmental or human harm it causes. There is nothing remotely democratic about that… And the sooner the whole system is at the very least exposed for what it is, the sooner the great minds on the planet can start thinking about how to come up with a workable system that is less criminally wasteful of people and resources.

    • I’m not sure we disagree. The U.S. was formed as a Constitutional Republic, not a democracy. Democracy was a dirty word till after WW1. Once elite special interests were able to saddle the nation with a central bank in 1913, as well as a tax authority (to suck liquidity out of the system) in the same bill, the slow decline of the nation was a done deal. The Great Depression created enough desperation that a social change was possible – the cloaking of mercantilism in the garb of a socialist welfare state. Roosevelt, who grew up with and who was part of the elite NY financial and power set, tossed around rhetoric of greater good, but destroyed the economy and plunged the nation into depression for over a decade. The government got 4 times richer by the time it was done, and was awarded sweeping power – amazing what you’ll vote for if you don’t have anything to eat.

      Democracies don’t do well over the long haul, as they are inevitably corrupted and their populations devolve into apathetic sheep who demand and expect privilege even as their production capacity declines. I’m not arguing politics or moral philosophy, merely making an observation based on history. Democracy basically is mob rules rather than sovereign individual rights. Democracies inevitably devolve as the mob elects politicians that buy votes by increasing handouts to the mob, and the rich get richer while the middle class is eradicated. We’re seeing that now. The poor are still poor but want, expect and get a smorgasbord of entitlements and handouts, the rich are still rich as their lobbyists craft the laws the for-sale politicians pass, and the middle class pays for it until there’s waning middle class prosperity, and then when the supply chains break down due to lack of funds, the poor go berserk. And then the new new normal sets in. And the addled democracy becomes Argentina – which at the turn of the last century was one of the richest countries in the world, but is now, like Russia, a kleptocracy where the organized criminals/capitalists rob the nation blind while the rank and file just try to pay for the gas and light bills.

      Sermon over.

  4. John F says:


    Thanks so much for posting this; your commentary is spot on. This documentary should be mandatory viewing for every American worker and small business owner before they step into the voting booth on Election Day. After viewing it any person who supports a referendum for tort reform or decides to vote for a Republican should go straight to the doctor and have their head examined. Halfway through this documentary a realization hit me; Bill Clinton was right about the right-wing conspiracy in America. This documentary shows corporate America, enabled by the Republican machine, screwing over average Americans in pursuit of increasing their bottom line. I guess the Bush tax cuts were not enough to quench their greedy appetites. Corporate American and the Republican Party make me sick because they never play fair; they’re always moving the goal posts halfway through the game.

    • Maureen Gill says:

      John F; I hate repeating myself and since what you’ve written here mirrors my opinion I’ll just reply that you’re as “spot on” as is the post to this blog… and of course the documentary “Hot Coffee.”

  5. This is spot on. And most of it has already happened. I saw in today’s NYT that while our schools and roads crumble, uncontrolled gangs of armed thugs roam the cities, people lose their homes to random, criminal foreclosures, the pay of top corporate executives went up 23% last year. Thank you, Karl Rove, Faux News and the Tea Party!!

  6. sean k says:

    I had no idea this was airing tonight. Can’t wait. As said before – Spot On. Hopefully more than a few people will tune in tonight!
    Good work.

  7. KG Garyson says:

    And to think small business is supposed to be the backbone of the American economy and our way of life. Big government and big corporations are puppeteers pulling the strings. Very interesting article.

  8. Christine says:

    Get off the grid!!!! Once there was real estate tax we were done for!!!!!!!! BTW, I recently had a German Pinot Noir that was so Burgundian that if I closed my eyes I was in Cotes de Nuits………..civilization as an organized, focused entity is a horrible failure. Barter, self sustained farming and whittling is our future.

    As EInstein said, I don’t know what weapons the third world war will be fought with but the fourth world war will be fought with stones and clubs……..or something close to that


  9. carol ritzel says:

    they think to much, there is contradiction, not enough sencerity, america is freedom ,letting loose on the moral of our country.very much to much satire,and mockery. loss of values.who is to blame???? some people want to make there own rules!

  10. carol ritzel says:

    i do not believe we are serfs maybe the immigrants. we have the complete pleasure of creating our own business.with good financing, any american can become a superstar. it seems as though we can make dreams come true. more in the earliar ages people worked hard and under paid for someone else.times changeing fast. today there are more millionaires .your either rich or poor.

  11. Rachel Coles says:

    None of this is surprising, sad but not surprising. But I thank you for your knowledge of the law and being able to explain to us frustrated people exactly what is going on behind the scenes and why they are able to get away with their highway robbery all the time.

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