The Lawletter Vol 35 No 1, January 3, 2011
Jeremy Taylor—Senior Attorney, Products Liability
A recent decision rejected failure-to-warn claims by a plaintiff who suffered burns after spilling a cup of hot coffee onto his lap.
In Colbert v. Sonic Rests., Civ. No. 09-1423, 2010 WL 3769131 (W.D. La. Sept. 21, 2010), the plaintiff sued the restaurant from which he had purchased a cup of coffee, asserting that the defendant had been negligent and had failed to warn him and other customers about the dangers of hot coffee, failed to maintain its coffee at a proper temperature, and failed to make certain that its coffee cups were in a safe condition. In addition, the plaintiff alleged that Sonic "knew or should have known that the cup was overfilled with hot coffee and should have warned plaintiff and other customers of hot coffee cups," as well as that the defendant's coffee was unreasonably dangerous. Id. at *1.
The plaintiff ordered his cup of coffee from Sonic's drive-through window. After being handed the cup by the defendant's employee, the plaintiff sat in his car, placed the cup on the console, and held the cup with one hand while removing the top with the other so that he could add cream and sugar. While the plaintiff was removing the top, hot coffee splashed onto the plaintiff's hand, causing an "instantaneous reaction" resulting in the remainder of the coffee's spilling onto the plaintiff's lap. The plaintiff alleged that he suffered second degree burns in his stomach, groin, and thigh.
Applying the Louisiana Products Liability Act, the court held that the plaintiff had failed to establish that the coffee was unreasonably dangerous. The court observed that more is required to establish that a product is defective than mere evidence that the plaintiff was injured while using the product. According to the court, the factfinder may not presume that a characteristic of a product is unreasonably dangerous solely from the fact that an injury occurred. Hence, in the absence of evidence other than that the plaintiff was burned by the coffee, the coffee was not unreasonably dangerous under Louisiana law.
Turning to the plaintiff's warning claims, the court stated that to maintain a cause of action for failure to warn, a plaintiff must prove that at the time the product left the manufacturer's control, it possessed a characteristic that might cause damage and that the manufacturer had failed to use reasonable care to provide an adequate warning of that characteristic and of its danger to users and handlers of the product. The court noted, however, that a manufacturer's duty to warn does not encompass dangers that are, or should be, obvious or common knowledge to the ordinary user of the product. In order to be relieved of a duty to warn under this rule, a manufacturer is not required to prove that the plaintiff had actual knowledge of the dangers inherent in the product but must show only that the user should have known of the danger. The court found that the plaintiff was a "sophisticated user" of the restaurant's coffee and should have known of the dangers inherent in drinking hot coffee, in light of evidence that the plaintiff was a regular coffee customer, had purchased coffee from the defendant on many occasions, and had previously spilled hot coffee on himself. Under such circumstances, the court concluded that Sonic did not have a duty to furnish additional warnings to the plaintiff.
As to the plaintiff's negligence cause of action, the court found that the coffee was not served at a temperature exceeding the industry average and that the coffee was served to the plaintiff with a lid on the cup. Accordingly, the defendant did not breach a duty to the plaintiff and could not be held liable in negligence.