‘Hot Coffee,’ Tort Reform, and the Next John Grisham Project

Hot Coffee, Susan Saladoff’s documentary about the corporate fight to limit individual citizens’ access to the courts and to justice from the courts through caps on damages, influence on judicial elections, and clauses in contracts requiring that employees and consumers give up their rights to sue companies and arbitrate disputes, is a pretty good movie. Seeing Stella Liebeck’s burns from the McDonald’s coffee that injured her, or hearing Jamie Leigh Jones talk about being raped by her Halliburton colleagues is useful and powerful. The problem is, the lies about Liebeck’s case in particular are so ingrained in our culture — the documentary opens with scenes from Seinfeld of Kramer getting excited about suing somebody and Bart Simpson writing “I will not file frivolous lawsuits” on his classroom blackboard — that it’s hard to imagine how to push back this late in the fight.

An intriguing alternative presents itself in Hot Coffee, though, when John Grisham shows up to talk about his novel The Appeal. The book is inspired by the case of Oliver Diaz, a Mississippi judge who fought off an election challenge from a Chamber of Commerce-backed opponent, only to find himself the target of an ethics probe. (In the documentary, he insists it’s meaningless, though the relationships in question looked improper.) For a long time, Grisham was an incredibly powerful critic of corporate power. He was absolutely over the top, a melodramatist who wasn’t shy about alleging that companies would murder Supreme Court justices or rig juries to secure successful verdicts, and his novels don’t really have any ambivalence about whether his plaintiffs have been injured in a way that demands redress.

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I don’t know if he got bored by telling similar stories, or if he just succumbed to the lure of CIA stories (his CIA director, Teddy Maynard, is a fairly boring manipulative genius), but I would love to see Grisham bring back his scrappy young lawyers and his flawed but appealing victims. And if I were Grisham or a liberal studio head, I’d be riding the wave of the downturn and the financial crisis and pushing to get every damn corporate malfeasance story I’d written but that hadn’t made it to the screen sold and adapted. Washington stories are hot at HBO, so sell The Street Lawyer to them as a miniseries or to a movie studio. Maybe convince someone to do The Appeal as a Wire-style Appalachia story about Massey Energy, and mining, and Don Blankenship. This is a great market opportunity for Grisham — if he can shift his audience’s attention in what happens to be a politically useful direction.