Dr Eoin O’Dell: The legal perils of hot coffee



Dr Eoin O'Dell
Dr Eoin O’Dell

Dr Eoin O’Dell, associate professor of law at Trinity College Dublin, examines a situation that has cropped up from the Circuit Civil Court in Dublin to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg.

Without my first cup of coffee, I don’t function in the mornings. So, it’s not a surprise that some recent headlines about coffee caught my eye: Woman who was scalded when coffee spilled in her lap at drive-through awarded €30k damages (The Independent); Woman awarded €30,000 after takeaway coffee spill causes burns (The Irish Times); Woman (29) awarded €30k after she was scalded by coffee spill at McDonald’s drive-thru (The Journal.ie); Unable to have ‘intimate relations’ for 8 months: Woman, 29, receives €30k award after coffee spill (The Examiner); €30,000 for woman who could not have sex after McDonald’s scald horror (The Herald). All of the reports begin in the same way:

“A 29-year-old woman, whose thighs and genitals were scalded when coffee was spilled in her lap at a McDonald’s drive-through takeaway in Clondalkin, Co Dublin, has been awarded €30,000 damages in the Circuit Civil Court.
“Ciara Corboy, of Oatfield Avenue, Clondalkin, told Judge Francis Comerford that in November 2017 while being handed a large Americano at the drive-through restaurant at The Mill Shopping Centre, Clondalkin, a lid that had not been properly secured to the cup had come off causing her to be scalded in her thighs, groin and private parts.”

An earlier, not dissimilar, claim against Starbucks was settled for €85,000. These stories reminded me of the (in)famous Stella Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants (18 August 1994) (1994 Extra LEXIS 23 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994), 1995 WL 360309 (Bernalillo County, N.M. Dist. Ct. 1994). It was:

“a 1994 product liability lawsuit that became a flashpoint in the debate in the United States over tort reform. Although a New Mexico civil jury awarded $2.86 million to plaintiff Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled hot coffee in her lap after purchasing it from a McDonald’s restaurant, ultimately Liebeck was only awarded $640,000.”

There is more information about the case on the American Museum of Tort Law website, in Reader’s Digest and the New York Times here and here, and in the Journal of Consumer & Commercial Law (pdf here). It features in the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee, and there are other similar cases here. Similar cases in the English courts failed not long after: see Bogle v McDonald’s Restaurants Ltd [2002] EWHC 490 (QB) (25 March 2002).

Last summer, an eight-year-old girl who suffered second-degree scald burns when a cup of hot chocolate tipped in to her lap on a Ryanair flight settled her High Court action for €150,000. Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention (1999) (the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air) provides:

“The carrier is liable for damage sustained in case of death or bodily injury of a passenger upon condition only that the accident which caused the death or injury took place on board the aircraft or in the course of any of the operations of embarking or disembarking.”

The Convention was concluded on behalf of the European Community (now the EU) in 2001, and existing European law (Council Regulation (EC) No 2027/97 of 9 October 1997) was amended (by Regulation (EC) No 889/2002 of 13 May 2002) to give effect to the Convention in European law.

Just before Christmas, in Case C-532/18 GN v Niki Luftfahrt GmbH (ECLI:EU:C:2019:1127; CJEU, 19 December 2019), the Court of Justice of the European Union held that the concept of “accident” within the meaning of Article 17(1) of the Montreal Convention “covers all situations occurring on board an aircraft in which an object used when serving passengers has caused bodily injury to a passenger, without it being necessary to examine whether those situations stem from a hazard typically associated with aviation”.

A hot cup of coffee was placed upon the tray table in front the applicant’s father, but it tipped off the tray, causing her causing her second-degree scalding. It was not established whether this happened because of a defect in the tray, or due to the vibration of the aircraft. The defendant therefore argued that, since no “accident” was established, it could not be liable under Article 17(1).

However, the CJEU disagreed; it defined an “accident” as “an unforeseen, harmful and involuntary event” ([35]), which covered the facts here and brought them within the Convention and the Regulation. Ryanair were therefore probably wise to settle the case.

Meanwhile, in future, I shall have to be careful with my morning coffee.

  • Dr Eoin O’Dell is an associate professor of law at Trinity College Dublin. This article first appeared on his blog, Cearta.ie.

Tags: Tort



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