Those of you who have attended my “Law of McDonald’s” talks in California and Florida may recall the case of the strip search hoax. A Florida man who was unusually persuasive would call dozens of fast food restaurants until he could find someone who would believe he was with the police and who would disrobe employees (or themselves) at his instructions; though there have been other lawsuits seeking to blame the fast food restaurants for this, courts have generally thrown them out. One exception was the case of Ogborn v. McDonald’s, where two targets of the hoax successfully sued for millions. On Friday, the Kentucky Court of Appeals largely affirmed the lower court judgment, though it reduced the punitive damages received by Donna Summers (who gave an Alford guilty plea for her role in the strip search) from $1 million to $400,000. McDonald’s hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court. (Andrew Wolfson, “Appeals court upholds $6.1 million strip-search verdict against McDonald’s”, Kentucky Courier-Journal, Nov. 20, via ABA Journal).
One can almost fill an entirely separate blog with variations on the McDonald’s hot coffee case. In Manhattan, 77-year-old Rachel Moltner ordered a hot tea from a Starbucks, but had trouble removing the tightly-secured lid, spilling the beverage all over her. (You will recall other lawsuits complaining that the Starbucks lids are not tight enough.) Moltner not only blames Starbucks for her resulting second- and third-degree burns (and recall that the raison d’être of the Stella Liebeck suit was the false claim that only McDonald’s served beverages that were hot enough to cause third-degree burns), but for the broken bones she suffered when she fell out of bed in Lenox Hill Hospital while being treated for burns. Moltner’s asking for $3 million.
Press coverage in the NY Post (h/t P.G.) is short on legal details (though one is encouraged to see Starbucks publicly defending themselves, an apparent change in policy). But I’ve downloaded and uploaded the complaint, which was filed in state court and removed to federal court. The kitchen-sink allegations include a defective cup, defectively hot tea, and a failure to warn. Right now the parties are haggling over federal removal jurisdiction, as Starbucks waited more than thirty days after receiving the complaint–until a formal demand for money was made–to seek removal. This is an interesting example of sandbagging; if defendants remove cases simply on the possibility that alleged damages will exceed the amount-in-controversy requirement, they may incorrectly remove cases that should remain in state court, but if they wait for the formal confirmation from the plaintiff, they may face the allegation that they’ve missed the 30-day window to remove a case–something to consider when plaintiffs’ attorneys complain that defendants reflexively remove cases to federal court that don’t belong there. Moltner has a good argument that Starbucks waited too long to remove, because alleged damages would have clearly exceeded $75,000 despite the lack of an ad damnum clause in the complaint citing a number, but the consequence of such a ruling will be that defendants will be forced to prematurely remove cases that perhaps should not be removed. (Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., #: 1:08-cv-09257-LAP-AJP (S.D.N.Y.)).
This much seems to be agreed: Itzamargrid Ramos took her friend Clarissa Marino to scenic but hazardous Kaaterskill Falls in the Catskills as a surprise for her 20th birthday. The two were hiking when Marino slipped on a rock — her footwear at the time was “flat, rubber-soled slip-on shoes with no tread” — and fell into a stream from which it took ninety minutes to rescue her. She sued the state of New York for failure to warn, but just lost her case in the state Court of Claims, which hears cases against the state government.
The two friends are now described as estranged, which may put in perspective a noteworthy discrepancy between their respective testimony. Marino “said she was never blindfolded at any point during the day”, while Ramos “told the court Marino was blindfolded for the entire two-hour car ride and even as they traversed most of the trail until just before the top of the falls. … In the end, the court said it found Ramos’ version more credible and that the ‘profound danger posed by the Kaaterskill Falls was open and obvious to anyone employing the reasonable use of her senses.'” (Paul Nelson, “Court rules against fall victim”, Albany Times-Union, Sept. 7).
Gary Charbonneau had a gambling history, including substantial wins, which devolved into compulsive gambling in 2002. He blames this on his Parkinson’s disease medication, Mirapex, which he started taking in 1997. Mirapex changed its warning label to include reports of a correlation while Charbonneau was taking the drug; Charbonneau’s doctor kept prescribing the drug. Nevertheless, Charbonneau was able to persuade a jury that the failure to warn was what was responsible for his $200,000 gambling losses (much of which came from gambling illegally) and resulting marital troubles. The jury verdict even awarded $8 million in punitive damages, giving a whole new meaning to jackpot justice (though one would expect the trial court to reduce this substantially). The only press coverage of this lawsuit, aside from a handful of blogs (Pharmalot; TortsProf; InjuryBoard), is in an op-ed I wrote for today’s Examiner about the case and about how a Supreme Court case and Congressional legislation could affect it. (Theodore H. Frank, “Jackpot justice gets new meaning,” DC Examiner, Aug. 19).
(Post bumped with 12:20 AM update adding coverage of state Labor Department’s suggestion for new warnings.)
Roller-coaster enthusiast and torts professor Bill Childs is stealing our thunder in his coverage of the recent Georgia Batman roller coaster decapitation of Asia LeeShawn Ferguson IV, so there’s no point in rewriting his excellent post instead of quoting it:
I’m proud to be part of the amicus brief in Wyeth v. Levine filed by leading economists John E. Calfee, Ernst R. Berndt, Robert Hahn, Tomas Philipson, Paul H. Rubin, and W. Kip Viscusi. It provides an excellent explanation why FDA preemption is good for consumer safety and health policy, and why failure-to-warn litigation by trial lawyers hurts consumer safety. (You may notice that none of the public-policy arguments against preemption you see in the blogosphere fairly address these economic arguments.)
For everything you could possibly want to know about the Wyeth v. Levine case, do see Beck & Herrmann’s roundup of their excellent posts on the subject, and keep an eye out for their discussion of the top-side briefs undoubtedly coming soon.