Posts Tagged ‘open and obvious’

Birthday surprise doesn’t work out

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).

June 8 roundup

  • Litigation as foreign policy? Bill authorizing U.S. government to sue OPEC passes House, and is already contributing to friction with Russia [AP; Reuters; Steffy, Houston Chronicle; earlier here, here, and here]

  • Albany prosecutors charge boxing champion’s family with staging 23 car crashes, but a jury acquits [Obscure Store; Times-Union; North Country Gazette]

  • New at Point of Law: Bill Lerach may retire; Abe Lincoln’s legal practice; Philip Howard on getting weak cases thrown out; “Year of the Trial Lawyer” in Colorado; and much more;

  • Multiple partygoers bouncing on a trampoline not an “open and obvious” risk, says Ohio appeals court approving suit [Wilmington News-Journal]

  • Skadden and its allies were said to be representing Chinatown restaurant workers pro bono — then came the successful $1 million fee request, bigger than the damages themselves [NYLJ]

  • Who will cure the epidemic of public health meddling? [Sullum, Reason]

  • Turn those credit slips into gold, cont’d: lawsuits burgeon over retail receipts that print out too much data [NJLJ; earlier]

  • Lawprof Howard Wasserman has further discussion of the Josh Hancock case (Cardinals baseball player crashes while speeding, drunk and using cellphone) [Sports Law Blog; earlier]

  • “Women prisoners in a Swedish jail are demanding the ‘human right’ to wear bikinis so they can get a decent tan.” [Telegraph, U.K.]

  • Disbarred Miami lawyer Louis Robles, who prosecutors say stole at least $13 million from clients, detained as flight risk after mysterious “Ms. Wiki” informs [DBR; earlier at PoL]

  • Indiana courts reject motorist’s claim that Cingular should pay for crash because its customer was talking on cellphone while driving [three years ago on Overlawyered]

Bork sues the Yale Club

Before someone accuses us of playing this down, let me be out front and say that I find Judge Bork’s slip and fall suit against the Yale Club embarrassingly silly. The Wall Street Journal has the complaint. Judge Bork, speaking at the Yale Club, attempted to climb a raised dais that had no stairs or handrail; the 79-year-old failed to do so, and fell back, and hurt himself severely. I sympathize with Judge Bork’s serious injuries, but it’s beyond me what his lawyers are thinking in asking for punitive damages. And if any danger is open and obvious such that there is an assumption of the risk, surely the absence of stairs to reach a lectern on a dais is—especially if the dais is of the “unreasonable” height that the complaint alleges it to be.

(Bork used to be a fellow at AEI; and Walter and I have dined at the Yale Club.)

Update: Bloomberg has some relevant (and some not-so-relevant) quotes from Bork.

Update: More from David Bernstein. (The “Olson” quoted is Ted Olson, not Walter.)

NJ court: No warning that one might fall out of loft bed required

Donald Mathews, a Stockton State College senior living on campus, woke up in the middle of an October 11, 1999, nap and fell out of bed, injuring himself. For this, he blamed the manufacturer of his loft bed for failing to warn that people might hurt themselves by falling out of bed. A jury agreed, and awarded $179,001.

(Because Mathews claimed that he fell out of bed because he was startled, it’s not clear how a warning would have helped, unless he was seeking an audible recording regularly repeating, much like airport moving walkways, “Caution! The bed is above the ground!” Of course, this might interfere with sleep, but wakefulness is watchfulness.)

A unanimous appellate state court reversed on the obvious grounds that the danger was open and obvious and didn’t require a warning (the same grounds on which the McDonald’s coffee case should have been thrown out), but plaintiffs’ lawyer Gary Piserchia threatens an appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court. (Robert Schwaneberg, “Suit over loft bed falls short”, Newark Star-Ledger, Aug. 16, via Lattman).

Urban legends and Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee case

Thirteen courts have reported opinions looking at product-liability/failure-to-warn claims alleging that coffee was “unreasonably dangerous” and the provider was thus liable when the plaintiff spilled coffee on him- or herself. Twelve courts correctly threw the case out. Another trial court in New Mexico, however, didn’t, and became a national icon when the jury claimed that Stella Liebeck deserved $2.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages because McDonald’s dared to sell the 79-year-old hot 170-degree coffee.

The case is ludicrous on its face, as a matter of law and as a matter of common sense. Eleven years later, this should be beyond debate, yet somehow, it keeps coming up in the blogs, and we keep having to refute it. (Dec. 10, 2003, Aug. 3, 2004, Aug. 4, 2004).

Amazingly, rather than argue that the tort system shouldn’t be judged by the occasional outlier, the litigation lobby has succeeded in persuading some in the media and on the left that the Liebeck case is actually an aspirational result for the tort system, and, not only that, but that anyone who says otherwise is just a foolish right-winger buying into “urban legends” (Aug. 14, Aug. 16, and links therein). Even the Mikkelsons at have made the mistake of buying into the trial lawyer hype, calling the case “perfectly legitimate” and effectively classifying the common-sense understanding of the case as an urban legend.

But the real urban legend has to be that the case has any legitimacy. Worse, this urban legend is being taught to a generation of law students by professors like Jonathan Turley and Michael McCann. Now, any peripheral mention of the McDonald’s coffee case provokes a gigantic backlash from the left, who, while congratulating themselves on their seeing past the common-sense view of the case and being above urban legends, spread a number of urban legends of their own about the case. Witness the 200-plus comment outpouring at Kevin Drum’s Political Animal blog. This post provides a partial rebuttal to some of the things said in that thread, and will hopefully serve as a FAQ in the future.

Read On…

The Times’s errors on malpractice, cont’d

I’ve just posted at Point of Law the second and I assume final installment of my long critique of Tuesday’s New York Times article on medical malpractice insurance. The Times coverage contended — in assertions picked up and repeated by many a credulous blogger — that the premium levels charged to doctors bear no relationship to payouts or to legal limits on damage recoveries. Part I of the critique, again, is here.

While you’re at it, you really should be reading Point of Law every day if you have any interest in the more serious side of litigation and its reform, or just want to follow Ted’s or my writing (we both post regularly there). Among the topics you would have learned about recently: the difference, among civil litigators, between “chicken catchers and chicken pluckers“; Colorado lawmakers may restore to homeowners the right not to be sued over “open and obvious dangers” on their property; FDA panel recommends letting Vioxx back on market; a new study of class actions by Yale’s George Priest; medical malpractice law in the U.K.; Sen. Biden praises “bottom-feeders”; silicosis diagnosis scandal; a new legal ethics blog; tons more stuff on the Class Action Fairness Act, including this, this and this; problems with that much-ballyhooed report on medical costs supposedly causing half of consumer bankruptcies; and the Wall Street Journal on loser-pays.

McDonald’s coffee revisited

Professor Bernstein (also here) and the “Curmudgeonly Clerk” trade thoughts on the infamous McDonald’s coffee case ($2.9 million verdict for Ms. Stella Liebeck, who spilled a 49-cent coffee on herself), with the Curmudgeonly Clerk’s comments demonstrating how thoroughly the plaintiffs’ bar has infiltrated societal thinking.

The Clerk justifies the verdict on a couple of grounds: McDonald’s had 700 previous complaints; and Ms. Liebeck suffered horrific injuries.

To say that there were 700 previous complaints of burns (ranging from scalds to real injuries) from McDonald’s coffee begs the question. After all, 700 is just the numerator. What’s the denominator? The answer is in the tens of billions. A product that hurts one in twenty-four million people is not “unreasonably dangerous”, especially when the vast majority of the 700 incidents were not the sort of grievous injuries Ms. Liebeck had. (McDonald’s had settled previous cases, but the cases were incidents where the McDonald’s employees had spilled the coffee.) However, the jury took the 1-in-24 million statistic not as evidence that McDonald’s coffee was not dangerous, but as evidence that McDonald’s cared more about statistics than people — when in fact the statistic should have been used to throw the case out.

That Ms. Liebeck was surely serious hurt doesn’t change the underlying problem with the lawsuit: Ms. Liebeck was hurt because she spilled coffee on herself. If (as all fast-food restaurants do now) McDonald’s had the obvious statement “Coffee is hot and can burn you” on the cup (a juror later complained that McDonald’s warning was too small), would that have prevented her injuries? True: McDonald’s could have served luke-warm coffee or even iced coffee. But at the end of the day, the proximate cause of Ms. Liebeck’s injuries, as awful as they were, was Ms. Liebeck.

The argument for liability is that McDonald’s chose to serve its coffee hot and should have foreseen that people would burn themselves when they spilled coffee. But, here’s a question: the reason Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were so terrible was because she was wearing a sweatsuit that absorbed the hot liquid and held it close to her skin. Surely, clothing manufacturers can foresee that people will spill hot liquids on themselves. If Ms. Liebeck’s sweatpants had been made out of Gore-Tex or some other liquid-resistant material, she never would have been hurt. What’s the principle of tort law that holds McDonald’s liable, but not the clothing manufacturer?

Read On…

Update: two personal-responsibility cases

Updating a case covered on Mar. 28, 2000: a Texas court of appeals earlier this year reversed an award of $43 million (voted as $65 million by the jury, then reduced by the trial judge) against Honda to the survivors of a woman who accidentally rolled her car off a boat ramp into Galveston Bay and at autopsy was found to have .17 alcohol in her bloodstream. Her survivors argued that she was trapped in the sinking car by her seat belt, but the appeals court said they had not shown that any alternative belt design would have been any safer overall. Incidentally, this particular Galveston boozy pier roll-off award is guaranteed to be a different case entirely from the Galveston boozy pier roll-off award discussed in this space Aug. 28, in which the city of Galveston and its pier lessee were supposedly the ones to blame, the verdict came in at $10.5 million, and an appeals court again threw it out (Mary Alice Robbins, “Texas Court Reverses $43M Judgment Against Automaker”, Texas Lawyer, Feb. 19).

In an even more belated update, pool owners in Massachusetts were given a reason to heave a sigh of relief when the plaintiff cited in our Jan. 24, 2000 item, an experienced swimmer of 21 years old, lost his appeal before the state’s highest court in which he had argued that his girlfriend’s grandparents should have warned him not to dive into the shallow end (Pierce, Davis & Perritano, LLP, “Open and Obvious Danger Doctrine Reaffirmed”, Winter 2001; for details of case see also Cathleen F. Crowley, “Court decision could impact pool owners”, Lawrence Eagle Tribune, Jan. 4, 2000).