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Movie reviewers as advocates against forced arbitration?

Forced arbitration affects almost all consumers of goods and services and millions of employees who sign contracts where the fine print eliminates their right to seek justice in court. Yet forced arbitration remains an issue largely unknown to the public. That may change soon. Filmmaker Susan Saladoff through her documentary film “Hot Coffee,” presents gripping accounts of the ongoing corporate campaign to restrict individuals’ right to a civil jury trial, including Stella Liebeck’s story, which also inspired the film’s title.

Most Americans have heard of Stella Liebeck. She was the 79-year-old woman who in 1992 sought and won compensation in court in a case against McDonald’s Corp. after suffering third-degree burns on her groin, inner thighs and buttocks when the company’s too-hot coffee which was heated at dangerously high temperatures spilled onto her lap. Due to the distortions and false rumors that soon became conventional wisdom – no, she was not racing down a highway while trying to sip her coffee – Liebeck’s case became a symbol for so-called “tort reform,” or corporate efforts to give big businesses near-immunity from liability.

Stella Liebeck’s tale portrayed in “Hot Coffee,” was frank and compelling truth-telling, but it was the lesser known story of Jamie Leigh Jones and the knowledge that forced arbitration clauses are inserted within everyday consumer and employment contracts which seemed to stir indignation in some writers who reviewed the film.

Jamie Leigh Jones’ case was the “most infuriating example of legal injustice,” wrote Peter Debruge in his review of the film for Variety, the entertainment industry magazine.

Jamie Leigh Jones was a 19-year-old employee of defense contractor and Halliburton subsidiary KBR who was gang-raped in Iraq by her co-workers and wrongfully imprisoned by her employer after she reported the crime. She attempted to sue her employer in civil court, but the provision in her employment contract barred her from court and required her to go to arbitration, a secretive system where corporations typically have enormous influence over the process and outcome of disputes. As Debruge recounted Jones’ story in the film right up to Senator Al Franken’s effort to assist Jamie Leigh and similar victims, it became crystal clear that “as consumers and employees, virtually everyone watching the film has similarly waived their rights.”

Hank Stuever of the Washington Post also found the immediate impact of this type of tort “reform” on our everyday lives significant enough to mention in his glowing review of the film. “As Saladoff shows,” Stuever wrote, “each of us at present relinquishes our right to sue in all sorts of everyday consumer transactions — while using credit cards, cellphones and a host of other products.”

Forced arbitration is mentioned and described in other reviews of the film including in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, CNN and Reuters, to name a few. Saladoff’s “Hot Coffee” and by consequence the movie reviewers have brought more attention to the injustice of forced arbitration than tireless public interest advocates could even dream of providing it. With any luck, viewers of the film will be spurred into action so we can all work together to effect change in the system.

“Hot Coffee,” premiered last night  on HBO at 9 p.m. Get info about the movie and other viewing opportunities at hotcoffeethemovie.com and be sure to join Public Citizen’s Civil Justice Project on Facebook and visit our page devoted just to these issues at www.fairarbitrationnow.org to stay informed of issues like forced arbitration and urge your representatives to support the Fair Arbitration Now Act.

Christine Hines is consumer and civil justice counsel for Public Citizen. Follow her on Twitter @chines_citizen