Hot beverage litigation lore now has a new chapter – “Tea, Airplanes, and Bulkhead Seats.” According to The City Paper, a Tennessee woman, Angelica Keller, has sued Southwest Airlines after spilling hot tea in her lap mid-flight. Keller spilled the beverage when attempting to pry loose a tea bag wedged between two cups. Apparently, Keller was seated in the first row of the plane, so she did not have an available drop down table to rest the cups. Before she could unbuckle her seat belt and stand up, the hot tea spread around the seat cushion, allegedly causing her second degree burns. Thereafter, she filed suit against Southwest, alleging that the airline failed to warn her of the hazards of delivering a hot beverage during a flight in a bulkhead seat.
On the one hand, this matter sounds eerily similar to the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case. Passenger injured while holding a hot beverage in her lap. Burns exacerbated by sitting in the liquid. Facially ridiculous lawsuit to follow. Abnormal Use picking up the story.
On the other hand, this case does have some intricacies that may distinguish it from its coffee predecessors. Notably, due to her mode of transportation, the plaintiff was under the control of the defendant. It is at least arguable that the accident could have been prevented had Southwest provided tables for the bulkhead seats. Moreover, unlike the consumer who purchases hot coffee and is free to go wherever he chooses, an airline passenger confined in a packed seat thousands of feet in the air has no such luxury.
Unlike the hot coffee cases which allege that restaurants are serving an unreasonably dangerous product, this suit alleges that Southwest is negligent for serving hot liquids on a potentially turbulent flight. An interesting concept, that is. Interestingly, the plaintiff does not appear to allege that the spill was caused by turbulence, but rather, by her own conduct.
Regardless of their differences, this suit has one glaring similarity to the hot coffee cases before it – the beverages are meant to be served hot. Users should assume the risk of burns when handling a known (and desired) hot liquid.