July 15, 2011

"Hot Coffee" documentary takes aim at media depictions of civil litigation

I've been meaning to post about HBO's "Hot Coffee" documentary ever since reading this Reuters interview with the filmmaker ("Hot Coffee" shows the other side of "frivolous lawsuits").  I can't comment on the film itself because I haven't seen it yet, but I was struck by the overall theme of the article: the author felt compelled to make a film to tell "the other side" of civil litigation, because "[n]obody talks about frivolous defenses" and the other evils perpetrated by defense lawyers and their clients. 

I guess it's all a matter of perspective.  The author perceives that plaintiffs' lawyers have been unfairly vilified and portrayed as bad guys to the American public.  From my perspective, the opposite seems true.  My perception is that nearly every depiction of civil litigation in the media and pop culture portrays plaintiffs' lawyers as heroes, fighting for the little guys against evil corporations who will stop at nothing to make a buck.  I can think of quite a few films that glorify plaintiffs' lawyers, such as Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, Philadelphia, Class Action.  And didn't we just have another documentary film, Bananas, depicting plaintiffs' lawyers fighting against evil corporations?  I can't really think of any films that glorify civil defense lawyers.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not quitting my job to make a film about the virtues of defense lawyers.  I just don't share the author's views about how civil litigation is usually presented to the American public.   

1 comment:

  1. I think you are talking about two different things here: how plaintiff's attorneys are portrayed to the American public in film versus the press. From a dramatic standpoint, one can easily understand that plaintiff's attorneys make better heroes or protagonists. They are often alone and symbolize the underdog. The Paul Newman character in The Verdict would not have been as compelling if he worked at a large law firm and had support staff. A plaintiff's attorney typically represents people, so filmmakers can tell a story about people, not about companies. The only film I can recall that dealt with "frivolous defenses," was Michael Clayton, and he probably opened a plaintiff's firm after the movie was over.

    The press and public opinion is another matter. When you talk to plaintiff's attorneys, they will tell you one of the biggest obstacles they face in trial is dealing with the jury's perception of frivolous lawsuits, and in particular, the McDonald's Coffee case. Laypeople who do not follow the law are familiar with the case by name, but they don't really know or understand the history of the case, including the numerous complaints that McDonald's received prior to the accident. And when John Edwards was running for office - pre-scandal - wow, I never heard so many complaints about trial lawyers. I never heard similar complaints spoken of about defense lawyers. Except that maybe they did have as nice a haircut as Edwards did.

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