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The staff of The Salt Lake Tribune covers the Sundance Film Festival, on the streets of Utah and beyond.

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"Hot Coffee" premieres

Susan Saladoff, a malpractice lawyer-turned filmmaker, uses her doucmentary "Hot Coffee" to expose the efforts of big corporations and their political supporters to deprive Americans of their right to use the civil justice system to recover damages for injuries.

She traces how distortions about the McDonald's hot coffee case, fueled by millions in corporate PR spending, went a long way to pushing forward so-called "tort reform" that limits what victims can received for injuries caused by negligence. The truth about the injuries suffered by Stella Liebeck and 600 other people burned by McDonald's blisteringly hot coffee, was belittled. Tort reform advocates managed to make their labels, "jackpot justice," and "lotto litigation," household terms, and the case became the fodder of stand-up routines.

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"Hot Coffee" is a call to arms for plaintiff's rights in the legal system and to counteract the loading of state supreme courts by corporate interests. Unfortunately, the film's credibility is somewhat undercut because it is obviously a "subjective docmentary" — Michael Moore without the snark. It's unclear why the proponents of tort reform were not given more of an opportunity to make their case. Obviously, McDonald's, Karl Rove and other major players denied interviews, but there must be others who would debate the issue.

Saladoff says she asked some key players for comment, but acknowledges, "I'm sure a lot of them feared I would use their words out of context."

Still, it's a film that most Americans should see, if only for the education in civil law and the Constitution it offers.

"Hot Coffee" has screenings tomorrow in Park City at the Yarrow, Thursday at the Redstone and Saturday at Prospect Square.

Utah lawmakers can catch it at the Broadway Centre Friday at 6 p.m.

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