Monthly Archives: May 2014

In-N-Out Burger held liable for burns suffered from hot coffee

If you watched the news in the 1990s then chances are you probably heard about the famous products liability case Liebeck v. McDonald’s. As you may remember, the case involved a 79-year-old woman who suffered third-degree burns after spilling a cup of the fast food chain’s coffee in her lap. She sued and was awarded nearly $3 million in damages, which were later reduced significantly.

Now another fast-food chain, In-N-Out Burger, has found itself facing similar litigation not only for its scalding coffee but because of how its employees reacted after a customer was severely burned. Much like the case before it, this new case highlights the importance of holding companies accountable when their negligence causes serious injury.

This most recent case of products liability happened on April 1, 2013 when a cup of “excessively hot” coffee spilled in the lap of a woman at an Oakland In-N-Out. Filed in Alameda County Superior Court, the woman claims in her lawsuit that despite her cries for help, employees at the fast food restaurant refused to call 911. They claimed it violated company policy and gave her an ice pack instead.

But as the woman’s lawyer points out, she suffered second-degree burns to which ice should not be applied. Had the employees contacted emergency responders, they would have known that this form of treatment can increase scarring. And as for not calling 911, it was pointed out recently by a spokesman for In-N-Out that despite what the employees told the woman they are “authorized to dial 911 in emergency situations.” Failing to do so “violates their duty of care to customers,” explains the woman’s lawyer.

Although the woman in this case will likely recover from her injuries, she did require three days of treatment at the Bothin Burn Center at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital. As our readers can imagine, a hospital stay such as this would accumulate substantial medical bills that might not be completely covered by the woman’s insurance.

Although the amount of damages the woman is suing for have not been disclosed at this time, it’s likely that these medical bills will be taken into consideration. It’s likely that her claim is also seeking punitive damages that will hold the restaurant accountable for its negligence. Whether this case will force In-N-Out to educate its employees better about reacting to emergency situations or not remains to be seen.

Source: New York Daily Mail, “California woman sues In-N-Out Burger, claims employees refused to call 911 when she burned herself with hot coffee,” Lee Moran, May 28, 2014

Are airline restraint policies putting your child in danger?

Thousands of motor vehicle accidents happen nearly every month across the nation. In fact, they are considered by many transportation authorities to be the leading cause of serious injury and death in the United States. But according to the National Transportation Safety Board, a lot of serious and fatal injuries can be prevented if more people would wear seat belts.

While many of our California readers have heard this said about motor vehicles on the ground, few have heard it mentioned in relation to airplanes. Reports about these transportation accidents hardly ever highlight the danger of not wearing proper safety restraints during a crash or turbulence. And it’s because of this that has the NTSB particularly concerned.

In a 2001 report issued by the NTSB, the agency noted that “the best way to avoid injury and death [in a commercial aviation accident] is to be restrained in a seat during a crash, turbulence, and during takeoff and landing.” But while adults are required to wear seat belts on a plane, this is not the case for children under the age of two. If our luggage and other belongings must be stowed during flight to prevent others from suffering injury, why is there no requirement to properly restrain children?

Although the FAA admits that children under the age of two are safer in a restraint system than on an adult’s lap, airlines are still not required to have all children travel in an appropriate child-safety seat. This might be disconcerting to many of our San Francisco readers who fly, especially because it raises questions about liability in the event their child is injured in an aviation accident.

While there is no easy answer to the liability question, the NTSB says that aviation authorities could do more to ensure occupant safety aboard aircrafts. By requiring all passengers to wear proper safety restraints, the number of injuries and fatalities suffered in an accident could be reduced.

Source: The National Transportation Safety Board, “Strengthen Occupant Protection in Transportation,” Accessed May 21, 2014

Study sheds new light on brain injuries in babies

Finding out that your newborn has a brain injury is perhaps one of the most traumatic pieces of information that any parent can hear. In many cases, this can lead parents to blame doctors and hospitals for potential mistakes made during delivery. But while a large portion of medical malpractice lawsuits have successfully proven hospital negligence, a new study is highlighting the fact that this might not be the case all of the time.

In a document called Neonatal Encephalopathy and Neurologic Outcome, researchers outline the fact that not all brain damage in infants is a direct result of a birth injury. In some cases, brain damage can result because of a mother’s health problems or even genetics. It’s knowing the difference between brain damage caused by these other factors and an oxygen deficiency that will help guide future medical malpractice cases down the road.

Researchers point out that one of the best ways to determine the origins of a brain injury are through M.R.I. scans. A causal link can be made between hospital negligence and the injury if a scan is abnormal days after birth. If the scan is abnormal on the day of the baby’s birth, then it’s more likely the injury happened before birth.

Because this new study points out many of the issues associated with brain injuries in newborns, it will have a two-fold impact on our society. On one side, it may help reduce medical errors by changing standards for the delivery process. But on the other hand, it could create potential legal problems for parents who may have a legitimate negligence case. If a timeline after birth is not accurately established then it may be difficult to pinpoint when the injury occurred. This can create pushback from hospitals who may not want to pay out for their mistake, which would leave any parent unsure of what to do next.

Source: The New York Times, “Hurt Before the Birth,” Jane E. Brody, May 5, 2014

Tips to help California bicyclists avoid an accident

Now that spring is upon us, people are finding excuses to get outside and enjoy the warmer weather. Whether this means taking a walk or riding your bike, outdoor activities — especially around motor vehicles — often come with the risk of an accident. And as many of our San Francisco readers know, these types of accidents can lead to some rather serious injuries.

Though we know not all pedestrian accidents can be prevented, we wanted to at least share a few tips with our readers to help keep them safer, especially if they plan on riding a bicycle anytime soon.

The first and most common danger to bicyclists and pedestrians alike is visibility. In a majority of pedestrian strikes, drivers often admit that they did not see the person until it was too late. While it’s rather difficult to compensate for distracted driving, bicyclists can help avoid an accident by wearing bright or reflective clothing as well as riding in the same direction as traffic.

Because the 3-foot law does not go into effect here in California until September, bicyclists may want to move over as far as possible to the side of the road to provide an ample amount of space between themselves and motor vehicles. It’s important to remember that the burden of safety does not rest solely on the shoulders of bicyclists but motorists as well. When turning right, motorists should be aware of their surroundings and merge carefully into bike lanes so as to avoid an accident.

While there are a handful of other things that riders can do to stay safe while biking — including not wearing headphones in both ears and not operating a bicycle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol — wearing a helmet is a great way to prevent a serious head injury or brain trauma from occurring during an accident. And although this won’t protect a rider from all injuries suffered in a crash, it may prevent at least two that can be fatal.

Source: The Appeal-Democrat, “May is Bicycle Safety Month,” Monica Vaughan, May 4, 2014

Two major things lawmakers should consider with autonomous cars

Although media attention on the subject has died down, residents across the state of California and the nation may still have some concerns about autonomous vehicles. This is especially true when it comes to liability. And while some experts claims that most state products liability laws will cover many of the issues that could come up with autonomous and self-driving cars, there are at least two things that lawmakers should consider addressing before the technology hits the markets.

The first thing that lawmakers in each state should consider is how to address liability when it comes to defects. Imagine that you own a non-autonomous vehicle that undergoes a conversion to become an autonomous vehicle. Parts are installed on your vehicle by a third party. But after awhile, they fail. Who is held liable for damages? It’s this important question that might not be easily answered by existing laws, meaning lawmakers now will need to address these concerns before they become contentious legal disputes.

The second thing that should be addressed now rather than later is liability for autonomous commercial vehicles.  While some legal experts believe that each state should create its own laws for personal vehicles, the same should not be true for commercial vehicles.  As the author of “Products Liability and Driverless Cars: Issues and Guiding Principles for Legislation” explains, liability should be addressed federally through guidelines handed down by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration.  This will likely eliminate complicated jurisdictional disputes that often arise when an accident happens in a different state from that of the company’s headquarters.

Source:, “Who Pays for a Car Accident When There is no Driver?” Joshua Bleiberg, April 28, 2014

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