Local filmmaker set for Sundance

A documentary movie by Ashland lawyer Susan Saladoff indicting corporate America for stacking the judicial system against wronged plaintiffs has been accepted by the prestigious Sundance Film Festival for a January premiere.

After 25 years as a trial lawyer, mostly in medical malpractice, Saladoff left her Ashland firm to travel the country in gathering material for her film. She interviewed experts, lawyers and victims on both sides of the issue, including author John Grisham and Sen. Al Franken, and is now putting final touches on her 86-minute film called "Hot Coffee."

The title refers to the poster child of all supposedly frivolous liability suits, a 1992 case in which an Albuquerque, N.M., woman suffered third-degree burns when she spilled hot McDonald's coffee in her lap. She successfully sued the company for $2.8 million in a jury trial, though the award later was reduced substantially.

Saladoff said the film shows how corporations trumpeted the case as an example of the need for tort reform and damage caps and as justification for lawmakers and judges to bring "runaway juries" under control.

"Saladoff exposes the way corporations have spent millions distorting this case to promote tort reform," according to the Sundance website. "Big business has brewed an insidious concoction of manipulation and lies to protect its interests, and media lapdogs have stirred the cup."

Saladoff's film, which premieres at the festival Jan. 24, seeks to make a case that corporations have slanted the playing field in their favor by funding elections of judges who throw out liability awards and by making consumers sign small-print agreements that nix their constitutional right to trial by jury.

The agreements limit consumers to mandatory arbitration "and they pick the decision-maker, with no right to appeal, no requirement to explain the reasons for the decision and it's done in secret," she said.

Saladoff, a law graduate of George Washington University, started her career as a public interest lawyer with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice and has served as its president. She was named an Oregon Super Lawyer each of the last five years. She was a partner for 12 years in Davis, Hearn, Saladoff and Bridges of Ashland.

Her film, competing in the U.S. Documentaries category, was one of 16 chosen from 841 applicants. If it does well, she will seek theatrical release and consider other film festivals, she said, noting she's been invited to show it at the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

"My one big vision was getting to Sundance. Since they called and told me, I've felt ecstatic, overwhelmed and thrilled beyond words," Saladoff said.

She raised most of the money for her first film from foundation grants and individuals, securing an experienced team for editing, producing, photographing, directing and composing, as seen on her site, hotcoffeethemovie.com.

The movie details four liability cases, showing harm suffered by plaintiffs unable to get full access to courts or sufficient awards, she said.

In her courtroom malpractice work, Saladoff said, "I usually went in with both hands tied. The jury already had drunk the Kool-Aid, completely brainwashed. They believed there were too many frivolous lawsuits and that awards increased their own insurance rates. They believed what they were told to believe, what they heard over and over from corporate PR."

The film explores four areas: the public relations effort to promote tort reform, the "hot coffee" case and the fairness of its award, how state Supreme Court members are "hand-picked and funded ... so they're guaranteed to overturn plaintiff awards," and how corporations get consumers to sign away their rights to court trials in contracts for employment, mortgages, credit cards and other areas.

Saladoff tried unsuccessfully to interview noted figures in tort reform, including former Bush aide Karl Rove, a McDonald's lawyer and the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But she did tape author John Grisham on the stacking of state courts and Sen. Franken on his successful effort to withhold defense contracts from corporations that restrict employees from taking rape cases to court, triggered by the Jamie Leigh Jones gang rape case against KBR-Halliburton in Iraq.

"This searing documentary unearths the sad truth," said the Sundance blurb, "that most of our beliefs about the civil justice system have been shaped or bought by corporate America. Informative, entertaining and a stirring call to action, Hot Coffee will make your blood boil."

Saladoff's courtroom days are on hold as she explores the sudden success of her new career — and, though she's mum on its theme, possible production of a new film.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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