What do McDonald's, Jack-in-the-Box and an uninsured motorist have in common? Well, you might recall that back in the day elderly Stella Liebeck was the victim of a hot coffee spill at a McDonald's drive-through. When McDonald's refused to pay for her skin grafts and other related medical bills, they were hit with a multi-million dollar verdict. McDonald's whined and cried and screamed bloody murder but, the truth is, that the verdict was in response to their refusal to lower the temperature of the coffee they served to something safe — i.e., a temperature which doesn't cause third degree burns upon instant contact with the skin. Read McDonald's Coffee Case, The Truth — I'm still outraged at the perception that Stella's lawsuit was frivolous when McDonald's callously put profits above safety.
But I digress.
Young Woman Burned at Jack-in-the-Box
Fast forward to the 21st Century when a young woman, Teckla Chude, pulls her car into a Jack-in-the-Box drive-through, orders coffee and is handed a cup with a loose lid. Lo and behold she suffers the same fate as Stella Liebeck and is burned pretty badly. Teckla's injuries were expressly alleged to be increased because she couldn't get out of the vehicle after the coffee spilled because the drive-thru was too narrow to let her open her door and the hot coffee just soaked through her pants causing burns and, ultimately, some scarring. She incurred medical bills, loss of earnings and had to delay her schooling a bit.
Jack, that clever fellow, had his lawyers argue that Teckla Chude was ineligible to recover for her pain and suffering under California's Uninsured Motorist Law which states that "in any action to recover damages arising out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle, a person shall not recover non-economic losses to compensate for pain, suffering, inconvenience, physical impairment, disfigurement, and other non-pecuniary damages, if any." Read Uh-Oh, Car Accident With No Liability Insurance: "But I'm Not At Fault" for a colorful explanation of the law.
Teckla Loses! Jack Wins (say what?)
Yep, you read it right! The California Court of Appeals decided that the Uninsured Motorist Law applies to this case. Here's their actual opinion: Chude v. Jack-in-the-Box. And here's the court's logic:
…Chude used her car to drive up to the drive-through window. Even more than the plaintiff in Harris or Cabral, both of whom had parked and were outside of their vehicles, Chude was seated inside her car, with her seatbelt on, with the motor running and the transmission engaged. Here, the accident "arose out of" her "operation" and "use of" her vehicle at the time of the incident. More important, Chude would not have been in the drive-through lane purchasing coffee but for her vehicle. It is JIB's policy not to serve anyone at a drive-through window who is not in a motorized vehicle. Thus, the accident "arose out of" or "flowed" from Chude's operation and use of her vehicle. Stated otherwise, she was in the drive-through lane precisely because she was using her car to purchase coffee from the drive-through window part of the restaurant. Accordingly, this "action to recover damages ar[ose] out of the operation or use of a motor vehicle" and so section 3333.4, subdivision (a) applies to bar her recovery of non-economic damages.
Don't Get Burned! Get Auto Liability Insurance
Was this the intention of the statute or is the court reaching too far in its interpretation? Maybe, maybe not. But this is how the court has interpreted the law so broadly that I must give you the bottom line: Get liability insurance when driving in California or you could get burned! (Read Auto Insurance Coverage From a Personal Injury Lawyer's Perspective)
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