Opening Statements

Oregon Attorney's Documentary 'Hot Coffee' Makes the Sundance Cut

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Hot Coffee “meet the artist” video.

Many lawyers have fantasized about putting their practice on hold and making a movie, but few actually do it.

Even fewer can say their maiden effort landed them a coveted spot at an internationally renowned film festival.

Ashland, Ore., lawyer Susan Saladoff is that rare lawyer who not only followed her dreams but has bragging rights to boot. Her 2009 film Hot Coffee will be screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

The feature-length documentary is one of 16 selected from 841 entrants for the festival’s U.S. documentary competition. It largely focuses on the infamous 1994 McDonald’s coffee spill case—in which a jury awarded plaintiff Stella Liebeck $2.86 million in damages after she spilled hot coffee on herself—while also exploring how and why the case has become so iconic.

Saladoff, whose previous filmmaking experience was limited to making short documentaries for her civil litigation practice, says she faced a learning curve making Hot Coffee. “I didn’t know the lingo,” she says. “People ask me how I did this, and every step of the way I learned everything.” She also credits the highly experienced filmmakers with whom she surrounded herself during the making of the documentary.

Saladoff did not originally intend to make a film about the McDonald’s coffee spill case. She first planned to make a documentary about the civil justice system and call it Distorted.

But friends pointed out that few knew what the word tort meant in the legal context, and those who did might not find a feature-length film about it appealing.

Then a lightbulb went off: “I realized everybody knows about the McDonald’s coffee case,” Saladoff says. “Or at least they think they know about it.”

In Hot Coffee, Saladoff interviews members of the jury, Liebeck’s lawyer and family members to provide the facts, while her man-on-the-street questions about the case provide the color.

“The whole point of my making the film was that I had something to say about the civil justice system, and I wanted to get my message out to as many people as possible,” says Saladoff, who is currently on sabbatical from her law practice.

“I got through the history of how the words tort reform became popular in our culture,” she adds. “No one knows what a tort is, yet they’re being asked to vote on it.”

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