PARK CITY, Utah — A former lawyer has thrown a spotlight on the cash-fueled influence which big business has on America’s judicial system, in a revealing film unveiled at the Sundance film festival.
“Hot Coffee” is named after the infamous case where fast-food giant McDonalds was forced to pay 2.8 million dollars to a woman who burnt herself with one of its drinks.
In the documentary Susan Saladoff, a lawyer of 25 years’ standing, explains how America’s corporate giants got their act together after the 1994 McDonald’s case, pushing for laws to restrict consumers’ right to sue them.
On the pretext of limiting so-called “justice jackpot” or “legal lottery” payouts, corporate bosses want consumers “to give up their rights to the court system, voluntarily, so the corporations can make more money,” said Saladoff.
With multi-million dollar campaigns, major business groups have managed to get ceilings fixed in several states on the level of damages if a company is convicted, taking away juries’ traditional right to set compensation.
But Saladoff shows how business influence on the judicial system works in a number of other ways, including “mandatory arbitration” clauses which are notably inserted in cell phone or credit card contracts.
Under such clauses the customer waives the right to take legal action, instead agreeing to out-of-court arbitration.
“Most people never think anything bad can happen. When they sign a contract with a company, they don’t think ‘Oh, at some point in the future, I’m gonna have a problem with that company’.
“You think it’s just fine and you sign. And when something does happen, you’ve given up your rights, and it’s not fair when the corporation …that you’re suing gets to pick who makes the decision about who wins or loses.”
Moreover “there’s no right to appeal, it’s completely secretive. When it happens, you feel like you’re helpless,” she added.
Even more worrying, in a country where judges are elected by voters in most states, firms can spend fortunes to back judges they think will favor them in case of legal action, or to ruin the career of ones considered too impartial.
“It’s dangerous because (despite) the amounts of money that have been spent, people don’t know where they are coming from.
“Those front groups that fundraise, people think, because of their names, that they are citizens’ groups. They don’t know that they are front groups for corporations trying to elect or defeat a judge. It’s a very scary process.”
Her film gives a voice to a number of victims of the system, and ends with an appeal for Americans to do something about it.
“As we know, politicians are also influenced by money. And who give them the money for their elections? Large corporations! The only way anything changes is if we, as people, as individuals, do something.
“We can call Congress, we can write letters, we can say No, we can vote. The other thing we have to do is stop signing contracts with mandatory arbitration!” she said.
A law which could set limits on mandatory arbitration is currently being debated by US lawmakers.
“There is a legislation that has been proposed, called the Arbitration Fairness Act. (But) I don’t know now with our Republican congress, whether or not that will go anywhere.
“If we as people, stand up for ourselves and actually recognize that we have rights and fight for them, maybe something can change. But it has to come from us.”