Court Denies Damages to Uninsured in Hot Coffee Lawsuit

June 4, 2010

An uninsured motorist is not entitled to recover non-economic damages for negligence, a California Court of Appeal has ruled.

According to documents in Teckla Chude v. Jack in the Box Inc.,Teckla Chude went through a drive through at Jack in the Box (JIB) in Los Angeles and ordered a breakfast sandwich and coffee. When the JIB employee handed Chude her order, the coffee lid was not properly secured, so the cup dropped into her lap, hot coffee pooled in her seat, and she suffered second degree burns and skin discoloration to her buttock and thigh. The injuries prevented her from working, sitting or driving, causing Chude to miss two weeks of school and an opportunity for an internship.

Consequently, Chude filed an action against JIB, alleging negligence and seeking both economic and non-economic damages.

JIB denied the allegations, noting that Chude was operating a motor vehicle that was not insured, and that neither she nor her automobile were covered by liability insurance at the time of the accident, and thus she did not have financial responsibility as required by California law. Moreover, JIB’s policy is not to serve anyone through a drive-through window who is not in a motorized vehicle.

“Chude argued that the ‘accident’ was the negligent act of failing to secure the coffee cup’s lid properly,” and that the accident “‘happened to take place inside a vehicle, [but] not because of’ the vehicle with the result the accident did not involve the operation or use of a motor vehicle.”

JIB, however, countered that “Chude would not have been through the drive-through lane but for her vehicle, and because of its rules, Chude would not have been served — and the accident would not have occurred — had she not chosen to order from her vehicle. … That is, but for the vehicle, there would not have been an accident.”

The Court of Appeal ruled that it could not “dissociate Chud’es injuries from the fact that they occurred in the vehicle.” Additionally, “Chude’s specific injuries were caused and exacerbated by the vehicle itself. Had she been standing at the take-out counter, presumably the coffee might have spilled on her shoe, but she would not have been forced to sit in a puddle of hot liquid as she tried to extricate herself from a seatbelt. … There is a clear and direct causal relationship between Chude’s operation of her vehicle and the accident for which she claims JIB is responsible.”

The Court of Appeal noted that state law prohibits uninsured motorists … from collecting non-economic damages in any action arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle,” and consequently Chude’s case did not qualify for an exception. The court further said the accident might have been covered by liability insurance had Chude insured her vehicle as required by law.

Moreover, JIB maintained a policy of comprehensive general liability insurance, and the Court of Appeal said that if it were to construe California law was inapplicable in this case, then JIB would remain legally responsible to compensate an uninsured driver for both economic and non-economic losses arising out of the accident where only JIB obeyed the law by obtaining insurance. “Such a result would reward Chude for breaking the law,” the appeals court said.

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