FYI: Coffee is hot: Another PC doofus gets burned

Published 15 years ago -  - 15y ago 10


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I would like to think that this article could serve as the okay-we’ll-tell-you-this-one-last-time statement that would end for all time the lawsuits filed by people who have been burned by coffee, but I can’t help but think that there will never be a definitive statement that will be emphatic enough to speak to those who find the lure of claiming a big settlement from a beleaguered food service just too tempting to resist.

Back in 1995, Mr. Lane Holmes pulled into the Turtle Stop in Las Vegas, Nevada to buy a cup of coffee. When he got back into his car, the cup somehow crimped and the coffee seeped out over Holmes’s fingers. The remainder of the coffee was then spilled on his leg, which caused second-degree burns.

True to the politically correct form of no situation ever being too ridiculous or embarrassing to translate into litigation, Holmes sued the Turtle Stop for having the nerve to make their coffee hot; H&O Foods, which is the supplier of the restaurant’s coffee brewing equipment; and the Wilbur Curtis Company, which is the manufacturer of both the disposable coffee cups and the brewing equipment used by the Turtle Stop. The contention in the latter’s inclusion in the lawsuit was that the coffee cups should have had a label posted on them, warning an unwary consumer that the beverage therein might cause injury if spilled.

Mr. Holmes’s lawyer, Algimantas Bruzas, stated that the company had a “duty” to have a warning label printed on their cups. “Even though the plaintiff testified the coffee was hot and he saw steam, it doesn’t mean he was aware of or warned that he could suffer second-degree burns,” said Bruzas, and added that the danger of being burned by the coffee “was not obvious” to his client.

You’d like to think, wouldn’t you, that Holmes would have heard that statement and thought to himself, “Whoa….wait….My lawyer is making me sound like a complete idiot. I’d better drop this whole thing and apologize to the court for wasting everybody’s time and taxpayer money with all this nonsense.”

Holmes apparently didn’t think that because his lawsuit progressed until District Court Judge Gene Porter made a pre-trial summary judgment against him, making the exasperated statement that “the danger [in a disposable cup of steaming coffee] is open and obvious.” He also added that if warning labels were required to be placed upon coffee cups, they’d also have to be placed on such items as eating utensils.

This ruling didn’t phase Holmes and Algimantas Bruzas, Esquire one bit: They continued bloody but unbowed on their quest for the Styrofoam Grail and appealed Judge Porter’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily dismissed the case in July 2000 and ruled that it would not require restaurants to print warning labels on coffee cups.

If I lived closer to Nevada, I’d gather Judge Porter and the members of the Nevada Supreme Court together and take them all out for a cup of coffee to thank them for their good sense and for not allowing the politically correct notions of 1) no one’s ever being responsible for his own actions; and that 2) accidents are always somebody’s fault to be decently laid to rest, in their state at least. I’d even be willing to spring for a piece of pie each. I could eat my own pie with a clear conscience, secure in the knowledge that there would be no need to lean across the table to snatch a fork out of an august hand and admonish, “Don’t you know that if you poke yourself with those tines it could make you BLEED?”

The Las Vegas Sun paralleled Holmes’s lawsuit to the one filed in New Mexico by octogenarian Stella Liebeck, the unfortunate lady who burned herself when she pulled the lid off the cup of coffee that she held clamped between her knees as she pulled away from a McDonald’s drive-thru window. Mrs. Lieback was originally awarded a $2.9 million judgment, but this amount was later reduced to $480,000 and the McDonald’s Corporation settled with Mrs. Liebeck out of court. McDonald’s now posts warning labels on their cups to warn customers that the beverage inside is HOT and poses a burn hazard.

Both of these cases beg this question: If you don’t have enough sense to know that steaming coffee can burn you, should you even be allowed to drink it? Instead of putting warning labels on the coffee cups, I think that the people themselves should be required to wear labels: “Warning! I am a filer of frivolous lawsuits. I do not want to take responsibility for my own actions, and I refuse to admit that accidents can happen. Do not give me anything that is hot, sharp, or capable of breaking the crowns on my back teeth or I’m liable to sue.”

I admit that this is a somewhat lengthy slogan to print on a label, so I’d like to propose an alternative, along the lines of <i>The Scarlet Letter</i>. Hester Prynne had to wear a letter A embroidered on her bodice so that everyone would know that she was an adulteress; I suggest that all litigation-happy citizens should be monogrammed with the letter D, to stand for the word “Doofus.” I have a thirteen-year-old friend who assures me that this term signifies one who is “really, REALLY dumb” although I personally prefer the more politically correct term “intellectually challenged.”

It’s either this or all the rest of us have to look forward to is a country that is completely plastered with warnings. A simple trip to the local park could be fraught with wary advice on all sides: the picnic basket bears the label “Warning! Do not slam lid on fingers!” The ham sandwiches come with their own tiny stickers to alert you to the dangers of not chewing each bite one hundred times: choking can be hazardous to your health. There’s even a little picket stuck in the turf to remind you that grass cuttings and wildflowers are a common allergen and often harbor biting, stinging insects: the park cannot be held responsible for an anaphylactic allergic reaction caused by a careless bee sting. Is this what it will take to nudge the intellectually and morally lazy into taking some personal responsibility?

I don’t think that the ACLU will allow us to monogram stupid people so that the rest of us can stay away from them and thus avoid being drawn into their vortex of punitive legislation. And the sheer effort it would take to get every manufacturer in the United States and abroad to label every single product they produce with sufficient warnings to alert even the most relentlessly thickheaded to every danger they might encounter in, say, a bottle of soda pop (“Warning! Do not shake this container and then point it at your face while opening. Didn’t your mother ever tell you that you could lose an eye doing something like that?”) makes me want to take to the bed with a migraine. All we can do is put our trust in the common sense of people like Judge Porter and the esteemed members of the Nevada Supreme Court and hope that the liberal-thinking java drinkers of the nation will finally concede that coffee can cause painful burns.

With our luck, they’ll probably just move on to drinking hot chocolate.

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