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Uninsured motorist law foils hot coffee suit

If you had to name a poster child for tort reform, it would be the lawsuit brought by the drive-through customer who spills scalding hot coffee on himself.

No matter how skillful a lawyer is in showing negligence, the public at large simply finds it hard to stomach awarding damages for such an ordinary mishap.

So there will be few tears shed for one Jack in the Box customer who found her quest for damages cut off by a law targeting uninsured drivers.

 

Trapped in the drive-though

Poor Teckla Chude.

All she wanted was a breakfast sandwich and a hot cup of coffee to start the day.

To satisfy her need, Teckla drove to the Jack in the Box on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Teckla placed her order at the drive-through menu board and pulled up to the window to await her fast-food treats.

When a Jack in the Box employee handed Teckla her order, she took the coffee and brought it inside her car.

Evidently the lid to the coffee cup hadn’t been properly secured because the cup dropped into her lap leaving the lid in her hands.

Teckla faced two immediate problems.

First, there was the hot coffee pooling in her car seat and burning her buns.

Second, she was trapped in the drive-through lane, unable to open the door to exit her car or easily release her seatbelt.

As a result, Teckla spent two to three minutes “trying to get [her] butt off” the seat and out of the hot coffee.

The damage was done. Teckla suffered second degree burns and skin discoloration to her buttock and thigh.

 

Financial responsibility law

According to Teckla, the injuries to her posterior prevented her from working, sitting, or driving for a time, so she missed two weeks of school, received an incomplete in coursework, and missed an opportunity for an internship.   

So Teckla naturally sued Jack in the Box for negligence, but she had one big problem.

Teckla didn’t have car insurance and California’s financial responsibility law “prohibits uninsured motorists … from collecting noneconomic damages in any action arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle.”

Jack in the Box wanted Teckla’s case dismissed on that basis and a state judge obliged.

Late last month, the California Court of Appeal rejected Teckla’s contention that her lawsuit didn’t “arise” from her “operation or use” of a motor vehicle.

Unsympathetic to that argument, the court observed that Teckla “was seated inside her car, with her seatbelt on, with the motor running and the transmission engaged. … More important, [Teckla] would not have been in the drive-through lane purchasing coffee but for her vehicle.”

The court underscored the point that it is Jack in the Box’s policy not to serve anyone at a drive-through window who is not in a motorized vehicle.

“Thus, the accident ‘arose out of’ or ‘flowed’ from [Teckla's] operation and use of her vehicle,” the court said. “Stated otherwise, she was in the drive-through lane precisely because she was using her car to purchase coffee from the drive-through window part of the restaurant.”

Teckla tried to argue that the uninsured motorist law didn’t bar her claim because the negligent act alleged – a restaurant employee’s failure to secure the lid to her coffee cup – occurred outside her vehicle.

That argument, too, was unavailing.

The court said it could not “dissociate” Teckla’s injuries from the fact that they occurred in the vehicle.

“She was sitting in her car and so the spilled coffee pooled in the seat below her,” the court explained. “Escape proved difficult because she was strapped in by her seatbelt. She tried for two to three minutes to lift herself off the seat and out of the scalding coffee. She was compelled to put the car in park in an attempt to extricate herself from the seatbelt and car. …

“In sum, [her] specific injuries were caused and exacerbated by the vehicle itself. Had she been standing at the take-out counter, presumably the coffee might have spilled on her shoe, but she would not have been forced to sit in a puddle of hot liquid as she tried to extricate herself from a seatbelt.” (Chude v. Jack in the Box)

On the surface this appears to be a harsh result. And it is difficult to imagine that California’s financial responsibility law was ever intended to apply to a fact pattern such as the one presented in Teckla’s case.

On the other hand, it doesn’t appear as though Teckla’s injuries were particularly serious.

Certainly her misadventure at Jack in the Box, though temporarily disrupting her school work, can’t seriously be viewed as a career-derailing event.

All in all, Teckla should chalk the whole experience off as one of the unavoidable bumps and bruises of life. 

- Pat Murphy

patrick.murphy@lawyersusaonline.com

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