We’ve all seen it. After waiting in the drive thru line in the early morning to grab our coffee, we squint through our tired eyes to read the warning on the side of the coffee cup as it is handed to us through our car window. “Hot! Be Careful”, “The Beverage You Are About To Enjoy Is Hot!” Many people may be familiar with the “McDonald’s Coffee Case” (more formally known as Liebeck v McDonald’s Restaurants) from the mid-1990s where a New Mexico jury awarded a woman damages after she spilled hot coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s. Or, like myself, you may be more familiar with the Seinfeld episode where Kramer burns himself with hot coffee and then hires lawyer Jackie Chiles to help negotiate a settlement with the establishment that sold the coffee. Such cases (not the Seinfeld episode) have prompted many companies to take precautionary measures and display warnings on their products.
Product liability lawsuits, however, are not confined to the contents of a coffee cup. In September, 2000 Mr. Lanny Stilwell was washing a Dutch Oven by hand in his kitchen sink when it broke into 4 pieces and badly injured his wrist. Mr. Stilwell eventually sued World Kitchen Inc., and Corning Inc. for negligence and breach of warranty. Finally, after several years of delay, the case went to trial before a jury in 2013. The jury found in favour of Mr. Stilwell and awarded damages in total of $1,157,850. Given that Mr. Stilwell was handling the Dutch Oven when it shattered, the jury apportioned 25% of responsibility for the accident to him, while they apportioned the remaining 75% to the defendants finding, among other things, that the defendants did not “adequately warn of the danger associated with the Dutch oven.” Needless to say the defendants appealed.
The Court of Appeal for Ontario heard the appeal in August 2014, and earlier this month released its decision. In short, the appeal was dismissed and the original decision was upheld, with the exception of aggravated damages in the amount of $25,000.
Unlike the warnings on the side of coffee cups, there was no warning on the Dutch Oven or the box that it came in. There was, however, a warning in the “Remember” section of the manual that came with the Dutch Oven. The warning, “indicated only that the product was subject to breakage if dropped or subjected to hard impact.” The jury, in finding negligence on the part of the defendants noted how it would have been helpful if the defendants emphasized the warning in the manual and on the outside of the box noting how accidental breakage and possible related injury could occur.
Although the appellants took issue with the decision of the jury, after a brief review of relevant case law, the Court of Appeal for Ontario found that so long as there is evidence on which the jury could reasonably base its decision, the court should not interfere with that decision. The court concluded that although with a different jury, or a judge only trial, different conclusions may have been reached, there was evidence from which the jury could reasonably base its conclusions.
The Court of Appeal found that because Mr. Stilwell’s common law partner, Ms. Neale, who purchased the Dutch Oven, was careful when using the product, the jury could infer, and it did, that Ms. Neale would not have bought the Dutch Oven if she was “adequately warned” of the potential danger that it could pose.
This case therefore acts as a twofold warning for manufacturers. Firstly, it is better to err on the safe side and take all precautionary measures possible to make possible dangers associated with a product clear to the consumer. Second, so long as a jury’s decision is reasonable and has an evidentiary basis, it will be difficult to have overturned.
If manufacturers were not aware of these two points before, this case certainly acts as a large warning label that they will not miss.