Washington Post staffer Hank Stuever started off with a fair point in his review of the new HBO documentary "Hot Coffee." But before his June 27 Style section front-pager was concluded, the Post TV critic was bashing conservatives and free marketeers for advocating tort reform.
"We get a lot wrong in our media-transfixed culture, where a wry quip and populist outrage almost always trump any understanding of complicated facts," Stuever opened his article, adding, "But rarely do we get someone as wrong as we got Stella Liebeck," the "79-year-old woman who horribly scalded her upper legs and groin when she spilled a 49-cent cup of coffee purchased at a McDonald's drive-through in Albuquerque 19 years ago."
Liebeck, the subject of "first-time filmmaker" Susan Saladoff's "Hot Coffee" documentary, "sued only to cover her medical costs, but a jury awarded her $2.86 million in punitive damages," Stuever noted, lamenting that the general public's view of Liebeck being greedy for gain was grossly unfair and that the punitive damages were ultimately "reduced and settled out of court for a mid-six-figure sum."
But Stuever couldn't resist turning his review into a political screed. It wasn't enough to praise Saladoff's work on its own merits, Stuever went into attack mode against conservatives and free market advocates:
Saladoff is a former public interest lawyer, and while I’m sure that proponents of tort reform will cry foul at “Hot Coffee’s” tactics, they would be hard-pressed to make a documentary about their own stance seem as sensible or compelling.
For to really embrace tort reform, you have to be willing to treat all potential plaintiffs as no-good grifters. That includes yourself, God forbid you should ever suffer an injury because of safety violations or medical malpractice or — in the case of a KBR Halliburton employee who went to Iraq and was allegedly raped by her co-workers — you signed employment forms without wading through an obfuscating amount of fine print.
To support tort reform, you have to believe all lawsuits against businesses are a threat to the free market. You have to acquiesce to the so-called invisible hand, and guess what? As Saladoff shows, 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.
Of course, supporting tort reform doesn't necessarily entail viewing plaintiffs as "grifters" who should be shut out of the halls of justice.
It certainly sounds like it's Stuever who's attempting to elicit "populist outrage" without allowance for "complicated facts" about policy debates over tort reform.
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