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'Hot Coffee' explores truth of tort reform

Stop her if you've heard this one:

A woman is buying coffee at the McDonald's drive-through. While steering with one hand and sipping with the other, she drops her drink on her lap. The coffee burns; she sues McDonald's and walks away a millionaire. And so begins the age of the frivolous lawsuit.

Susan Saladoff has no patience for that phrase. "What's your definition of 'frivolous'? Most people think the McDonald's coffee case is frivolous, until they learn the truth," she said.

The true story, like most true stories, is a little more complicated than the better-known version. Stella Liebeck, then 79, spilled the coffee while sitting shotgun in a parked car. The drink had been brewed to 180 degrees. Liebeck suffered burns so severe her doctors worried she might not survive.

"Look, everybody knows coffee is hot," Saladoff said, leaning across the table at Starbucks. "But nobody expects that if you're buying coffee through the drive-through and you spill it on yourself, you're going to need skin grafts."

Saladoff is the director of "Hot Coffee," a documentary that uses the notorious McDonald's case to launch an exploration of justice, or lack thereof, in the United States. The Philadelphia native is an unlikely Sundance breakout, as is her movie, which is essentially an 88-minute takedown of tort reform.

It premiered this week on HBO and has many more showings through July, along with being available at HBO's On Demand channel.

Saladoff first considered a career in politics but shifted gears to law during college at Cornell University. "I realized I wanted to make the world a better place," Saladoff said. "And that maybe I could do that more effectively as an attorney than as a politician."

After college, Saladoff spent a year in New York, studying for the LSATs by day and working as a singing waitress at a dessert cafe by night.

After graduating from George Washington University Law School, Saladoff turned down a job on Wall Street and went to work as a staff lawyer at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. She practiced law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Oregon, where she now lives with her two daughters.

"I thought that I could move the law in a particular direction one case at a time," Saladoff said. "But after 25 years, I wanted to move it a little faster than that."

So she applied her theatrical flair to filmmaking. Even though she "knew almost nothing about the film industry," Saladoff set out to document the McDonald's case on camera. She took the resulting 26-minute short -- which included photographs of Liebeck's burns that Saladoff obtained from her doctor -- and showed it around the country in an effort to raise money for the rest of the production. What started as a one-year sabbatical from her practice turned into a three-year project, culminating in the documentary's premiere at Sundance and purchase by HBO.

Saladoff is still floored by the reception of "Hot Coffee." "The film has taken off in ways that I had dreamed about and believed could happen, but the fact that it's actually happening is -- the word 'awesome' is now colloquial, but I am in awe, so therefore it is awesome.

"I want people to actually take action," she said. "I want them to be informed about what they're voting for to be unbiased jurors, to be open-minded. I want people to correct other people when they hear myths.

She has been on the road, spreading her power-to-the-people gospel across the country, promoting the project. The film covers plenty of ground, too, from Iraq to Nebraska.

"We spent the day in Hot Coffee, Mississippi," Saladoff said. "We interviewed everybody who lives there. All nine of them."

Turns out there is only one store in Hot Coffee, Miss.

It's called McDonald's Store.

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