Posts Tagged ‘proximate cause’

One too many causes of death?

A woman’s lawsuit charges that the death of her 77-year-old husband was the “direct and proximate result” of his slip and fall 21 months earlier on an “unnatural accumulation of ice” in front of a Trader Joe’s supermarket. A newspaper article last year describes the man as having fought a “courageous battle with cancer” before his death. [Josh Stockinger, Batavia (Ill.) Daily Herald]

Deep pockets files: 1956 edition

Decedent, Lloyd A. Wiseman, a vice president of a San Francisco bank, died of asphyxiation and burns in a hotel room in New York City. He was in that city on bank business, and his traveling expenses, including his hotel bills, were paid by the bank. A woman, not his wife but registered as such, was found unconscious in his room and died shortly thereafter. There was evidence that they had been drinking. Sometime between 4 and 5 in the morning of his death, Wiseman telephoned the hotel manager for help because of a fire in his room. After calling the fire department, the manager went to the room but was unable to open the door with his passkey. Firemen arrived shortly thereafter and broke into the room but were too late to save the occupants. It was the opinion of the assistant fire marshal that the fire was caused by careless smoking by either one or both of the occupants.

The California Supreme Court went on to hold that Wiseman’s widow and children were entitled to death benefits from his employer because his death “was proximately caused by the employment”—a remarkable definition of proximate cause. The Court reasoned that Wiseman might have died while entertaining a legitimate guest in the hotel room (at 4 in the morning?), so the fact that the death occurred in the course of nookie was irrelevant. That seems to me to prove too much: Wiseman might have died smoking in his bed at home, too, and he just happened to be in a hotel when his bad habits killed him. But this was part of Judge Traynor’s successful remaking of tort law in the 1950’s, and the death of proximate cause is a large part why we have the mess we have today. Wiseman v. Industrial Acc. Com. (1956) 46 Cal. 2d 570.

(You can tell that this is still over fifty years ago, though, because the widow didn’t sue the hotel or cigarette company.)

Hot tea lawsuit has interesting procedural quirk

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.)).

N.J.: mower sent golf ball flying

At least that was Thomas Guhl’s theory as to why the ball struck his windshield with high velocity while he was driving near the Eagle Oaks Golf and Country Club, injuring him. His $725,000 settlement is based on the theory that the golf club was negligent for not installing netting along Asbury Avenue that would have kept balls from landing on a neighboring homeowner’s lawn, and that Canfield Lawn and Landscaping was negligent because it hadn’t checked that lawn for golf balls before mowing. (“Man injured by golf ball gets $725K”, AP/Newark Star-Ledger, Jul. 31).