Wawa hot beverage suit about cold hard cash (Opinion)
The McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit from the early 90's still gets talked about in terms of frivolous lawsuits. A New Mexico woman spilled it on her lap in her car. This Monmouth County case is a bit different. A mother had her 3 year old daughter with her when she was buying several items at a Wawa. One of those was a cup of hot water for tea. The Wawa clerk allegedly knocked something else over which then knocked the cup of hot water from the counter and it spilled all over the 3 year old girl. Lawyers say she received 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 15 percent of her body and that some of her skin and was melted into her clothing. She has to wear a compression vest all summer and may require surgery later. The pain must have been horrific. I don't doubt that.
What I have an issue with is what the lawyer is after. He seems to be attacking the temperature of the water more than the clumsy action of the clerk. Of course he will, because he's a lawyer and he knows the temperature can be controlled but a clumsy accident can't always be. That can win or lose a case right there. The law firm tested the water temperature served at that particular Wawa and found it to be 180 degrees.
At 180 degrees, "it's like being napalmed," David A. Mazie exclaimed incredulously. Well of course he did. He's a lawyer. That sort of hyperbole is par for the course. The problem with the statement is it's inflammatory and incorrect. Napalm generates temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Hardly the same as 180 degrees. The lawyer also tried comparing it to the water in your shower which shouldn't go hotter than 104 degrees. A shower and a cup of tea have little to do with each other though. It's impossible to make a good cup of tea with 104 degree water.
The further problem with making this federal lawsuit all about the water temperature is that 180 degrees falls within industry norms. Studies have found hot beverages are often served at temperatures between 160 and 185. And the National Coffee Association says serving temperature should be 180 to 185. Why would tea be different?
The other problem is everyone knows when they first get their cup of hot coffee or hot tea there is always a cool down period. You learn this with not only hot beverages but hot foods long before you reach adulthood. You don't immediately sink your teeth into a dish straight from a restaurant's kitchen with bubbling cheese on top. Nor do you instantly put hot tea or hot coffee to your lips. So the serving temperature and the drinking temperature are really two different things. In the real world we know this.
The problem is it wasn't spilled at drinking temperature. It was spilled at serving temperature. The problem wasn't the 180 degrees, but rather that it was spilled. But it was spilled by accident, not by some horrible ongoing situation of neglect on the part of Wawa. Even so, the girl's medical bills should all be covered without a doubt. The clerk after all was responsible for the mishap. The girl did suffer. Everything should be completely covered. Maybe fifty thousand on top of that for what they went through. Where Mazie loses me is when his federal lawsuit calls for "punitive damages" and the mother's "emotional distress." That's lawyer-speak for we want millions. Punitive damages implies Wawa has been doing something wrong and knew it. They did not. This was a simple yet terrible accident. Punitive damage combined with dragging the mother's emotional distress into it raises this lawsuit to the frivolous level. It takes it from the realm of wanting to make things right to the realm of wanting to make people rich.
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