Jim Porter: Spilled coffee at Jack in the Box – deja vu all over again
Special to the Sun
You remember Stella Liebeck, the lady who sued McDonalds when she spilled her hot coffee on her lap. A jury awarded Liebeck $2.86 million, but the trial judge reduced the award to $640,000. Still a hefty judgment.
Well guess what, we have another dropped-hot coffee case – this time against Jack in the Box, who in case I haven’t mentioned it recently, has some of the best ads going on TV.
Oops, I spilled my coffee
Teckla Chude, we’ll call her Teckla, drove to the Jack in the Box, we’ll call them Jack, on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in L.A. in her own uninsured car. That’s right, Teckla was an uninsured driver. A violation of the law.
She went through the drive-through, placed an order for a breakfast sandwich and a cup of hot coffee. Teckla remained seated in her seatbelt with the engine running, the transmission in “drive” and her foot on the brake. She paid for her order, took the coffee and food from the employee and brought it inside the car. You know what happened next.
The cup dropped in her lap leaving the lid in her hands. Hot coffee pooled in the seat below her. She could not open the car door to unbuckle her seatbelt because the car was too close to the wall-so Teckla spent two to three minutes “trying to get my butt off … the seat” and out of the pooled coffee. Teckla missed two weeks of school.
What do you suppose she did next? What’s the AMERICAN WAY? What do you do when you foolishly drop hot coffee on your lap? You remember the McDonald’s case and sue his cousin Jack.
Jack in the Box/spilled coffee
Teckla sued Jack for her economic losses as well as her so-called non-economic losses, which we know as pain and suffering, defined under the code as “pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non-pecuniary damages.” You know the drill. Sue for missing two weeks of classes and $20 million for pain and suffering; assume no responsibility for yourself (or at least that’s the public’s perception of how it works, which I would argue is not entirely fair).
Jack responded to the lawsuit with 40 defenses including that Proposition 213, approved in the Nov. 5, 1996. general election, was a complete defense to her claim for pain and suffering.
Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, Prop 213
Prop 213 was an initiative “to ameliorate rising insurance premiums by encouraging uninsured motorists to obtain insurance.” The bill sought to “restore balance to our justice system by ensuring that those who fail to take essential personal responsibility would not be rewarded for irresponsibility and law breaking.” Ballot pamphlet. Prop 213 restricts the ability of uninsured motorists, convicted drunk drivers and convicted felons to sue for losses suffered in accidents.
As such, Prop 213 (section 3333.4 of the Civil code), “prohibits uninsured motorists … from collecting noneconomic damages in any action arising out the operation or use of a motor vehicle.” I.e. no pain and suffering damages may be recovered. (In Teckla’s case, she probably had minimal economic damages – wage loss or medical bills.)
Teckla admitted she owned her car and that it was uninsured. The issue in the case was whether her unfortunate coffee incident was “arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle.”
She argued that the coffee spilling happened to have taken place inside a vehicle, not because of the vehicle, and there was no accident involving a vehicle. Jack contended that the uninsured vehicle exacerbated her injuries. If she had been ordering inside she would have been able to move if hot liquid fell on her.
The trial court ruled in favor of Jack. Teckla appealed. The Court of Appeal also ruled for Jack, finding that the lawsuit arose out of the operation and use, in particular the use, of the uninsured vehicle.
The Court noted that the outcome may have been different if Teckla had reached out her window to take the cup and spilled coffee on her outstretched arm.
The Court also wrote that if Teckla was allowed to recover from Jack’s insurance company while she herself was uninsured, such a result would reward her for “breaking the law.”
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon, with offices in Truckee, South Lake Tahoe, Incline Village and Reno. He is a mediator and was the Governor’s appointee to the Fair Political Practices Commission and McPherson Commission, both involving election law and the Political Reform Act. He may be reached at email@example.com or at the firm’s web site http://www.portersimon.com.
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