Clark County (WA) Deputy Sheriff Edward Bylsma had an “uneasy” feeling after ordering a Whopper from a Burger King drive-thru. After lifting the bun from the burger, his suspicions were confirmed. As if living an urban legend, he allegedly discovered a large glob of spit on his burger. Fortunately, Bylsma had yet to take a bite out of the burger. Nonetheless, he claims that he now suffers ongoing emotional distress, including vomiting, nausea, food aversion and sleeplessness. After his subsequent lawsuit was appealed to the Ninth Circuit, the Washington Supreme Court was faced with the certified question of whether emotional distress absent physical injury is recoverable under the state’s product liability statutes. See Bylsma v. Burger King Corp., No. 86912-0 (Wa. Jan 31, 2013)
The Model Uniform Product Liability Act (UPLA) includes mental anguish within its definition of the “harm” necessary to maintain a product liability cause of action so long as it is accompanied by some physical manifestation. Washington’s Product Liability Act (WPLA) chose not to adopt the definition but, rather, to follow trends in developing case law. Without any guidance from the WPLA, the Court turned to precedent involving emotional distress from other torts. As it turns out, Washington has permitted recovery in the absence of physical injury in situations involving emotionally laden personal interests such as the improper burial of an infant child. Like these cases, the Court concluded that food consumption is a personal matter and its contamination is associated with disgust and emotional turmoil. As such, emotional distress arising out of food contamination is recoverable under Washington law.
Now that the question is answered, it will be interesting to see how Bylsma’s suit develops. If his case is remanded back to the trial court, he still must prove his emotional distress. Despite the recent “victory,” proving injury may nonetheless be difficult given the fact he did not actually consume the contaminated product. Admittedly, we too would be disgusted to discover that someone had spit on our burger, but it’s not like the resulting fear would be anything new. Isn’t the risk of food loogies an assumed risk of eating fast food? In addition, Bylsma’s newfound aversion to fast food may not be a “damage” at all.
The point of the physical injury requirement is to temper fraudulent emotional distress claims. Emotional distress is completely subjective and very difficult to evaluate. While the Washington Supreme Court’s decision appears to be limited to the food context, it will be interesting to see how many purchasers, but not users, of defective products try to test its bounds.
Of course, what’s the harm in trying?