Automotive Safety on Full Display at the Chicago Auto Show

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In February, my wife and I attended the Chicago Auto Show, mostly out of my fetish for new cars. The show is the largest in North America, and it is the longest running auto expo in North America. Nearly 1,000 vehicles are on display, and hundreds of thousands visit each year. I love auto expos because of the opportunity to experience the newest innovations and varieties our automotive industry has to offer. In the last decade, the industry has truly innovated the way we drive. From the integration of technology, new and pioneering transmissions, increased fuel economy and increased safety, a car manufactured in the last decade is dramatically improved over cars made just ten years ago. See these dramatic before and after ‘poses’ by Buick and Chevrolet.

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Perhaps one of the greatest innovations of the industry is the integration of safety features that used to be available only in the most expensive brands. For example, the 2017 Honda Civic boasts curtain airbags, land departure assistance systems, backup camera, a camera in the mirrors that monitors your blind spot, adaptive cruise control, and an automatic braking system to prevent crashes. The Honda Civic starts at $18,740. The difference in safety features does not proportionally increase when stepping into the Mercedes-Benz S-Class Sedan starting at $96,600.00. While luxury car lines such as Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, and Volvo innovated many of these safety features, you no longer have to spend big to protect your family. Cars have never been safer.

Products liability claims routinely result from defects in automobiles. We can all recall television stories regarding Takata airbags, General Motors and their faulty ignition switches, rapidly accelerating Toyotas, exploding Pintos, and SUV rollovers. But the great news is, automakers are more focused on safety than ever, and hopefully as a result, products liability claims in the auto industry will decrease.

On a more fun note, automakers are trying their best quench the American thirst for SUV ownership while providing top fuel economy. Several years ago, the introduction of the “crossover” to the American market gave us ‘SUVs’ on a car platform. And since that time, ‘crossovers’ have gotten smaller and smaller and less SUV-like. My wife and I were shopping at the show, looking for an SUV that could house a growing family. What I did not expect is that my wife would fall in love with the new Volvo station wagon. She insists it is not a station wagon. Why? Because Volvo calls it a “crossover.” Much like an American male that resists to the fullest extent possible to purchase a minivan, she cannot bear the label of “station wagon.”

Therefore, I will let the readers decide. Crossover or station wagon?

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New McDonald’s Hot Coffee Lawsuit: Still Trying To Relive the Liebeck Litigation

According to reports, a Michigan man has filed suit against McDonald’s, alleging that he was burned by hot coffee at drive-through. The allegations in the case go a little something like this:

On December 5, 2016, Carl Honeycutt, while a front seat passenger in a vehicle operated by his friend, made his way to a McDonald’s drive-through in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Honeycutt ordered a cup of coffee. The McDonald’s employee handed the cup of coffee to the driver of the car who, in turn, handed the cup to Honeycutt. When Honeycutt took hold of the cup, the cup’s lid popped off and coffee  spilled onto Honeycutt’s chest. As a result, Honeycutt allegedly sustained second-degree burns.

In an interview with M Live, Honeycutt’s attorney, Joshua Cecil, stated that he is was well aware of the infamous Stella Liebeck lawsuit. But does this case really have anything in common with its infamous predecessor? Cecil seems to hope so. Cecil argued that the Liebeck lawsuit prompted McDonald’s to take steps to maintain its coffee at a reasonable temperature, but independent franchisees may not always follow through. Keep in mind, however, that there is no information as to the actual temperature of Honeycutt’s coffee or whether its temperature was outside the bounds of McDonald’s corporate policies. (Also, there is thing we have heard about a time or two that coffee, by its nature, is meant to be served hot).

The lawsuit raises two theories of negligence: (1) failing to secure the lid to the cup and (2) the coffee was served at an “excessive and unreasonable temperature.” The latter clearly paves a way down the Liebeck path. However, Liebeck verdict aside, the former may be the better path to any recovery rather than fight through the 20+ years of rhetoric over whether a company can be held liable for serving a hot product at a hot temperature within industry standards.

Let It Be! Lawsuit Between Beatle Son and Parents of My Cousin Vinny Actress Comes to an End

According to a report from the New York Post, a lawsuit over a rotting tree in Greenwich Village has settled after two years of litigation. You might not think such a case is a big deal. It is true that tree litigation does not normally grace the pages of Abnormal Use. This case, however, is different. Really different. Why, you say? Well,  the litigants just so happen to be the son of a Beatle and the parents of My Cousin Vinny’s Mona Lisa Vito (aka Marissa Tomei).

Back in 2015, Gary and Addie Tomei filed suit against Sean Lennon, the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, claiming that a rotting ailanthus tree on Lennon’s property had encroached upon their property, causing damage to their 4000 square foot townhouse (purchased for $9.5 million back in 2008). Specifically, they alleged that the roots of the 60-foot-tall tree cracked their front stoop, broke the iron railings, and encroached upon their basement. The Tomeis sought the removal of the tree plus a hefty $10 million in damages. In a total boss move, Lennon demanded that the Tomeis alter the entrance of their multi-million dollar townhouse to accommodate his encroaching tree.

Now, the lawsuit which pitted litigants associated with two of our favorite things against each other has come to an end. The exact details of the settlement are confidential. However, it is known that the tree at the center of the dispute was cut down last month. To us, it sure sounds like the son of a Beattle lost out to the parent’s of the out-of-work hairdresser.

Wal-Mart’s Venture Into Craft Beer Under Fire

According to a report from the Chicago Tribune, a new class action lawsuit has been filed in Ohio against Wal-Mart, accusing the retail giant of shady beer sales. Specifically, the suit takes issue with Wal-Mart’s sale of its own line of “craft” beer in collaboration with Trouble Brewing. The problem, according to the complaint, is that Trouble Brewing does not really exist. In reality, the Wal-Mart brew is brewed on a contract basis by Genessee Brewing, which is owned by North American Breweries and produces more beer than would warrant the “craft” moniker. Plaintiffs allege that Wal-Mart has created a “wholesale fiction,” placing its beer on the shelves around other legitimate craft beers, to deceive consumers into purchasing craft beer at a higher, inflated price.

So what really is a “craft” beer? The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as “small, independent, and traditional.” To qualify, a craft brewery must produce less than 6 million barrels of beer annually, be less than 25 percent owned or controlled by a non-craft brewery, and make beer using only traditional or innovative brewing ingredients. While Genessee isn’t Anheuser Busch InBev or MillerCoors, the “Trouble Brewing” brand, assuming the allegations in the complaint are true, certainly doesn’t sound like a “small, independent, and traditional” beer – especially when considering the fact that it is backed by one of the world’s largest companies in Wal-Mart. And, we are guessing Genessee doesn’t offer Trouble Brewing tours and flights of the entire Trouble Brewing line over a game of cornhole.

It should be noted that the Trouble Brewing beers do not specifically identify themselves as “craft” on their packaging. However, as a senior buyer for Wal-Mart told the Chicago Tribune in an interview, “We were intentional about designing a package that conveyed a look and feel you’d expect of craft beer.” If only catchy packaging were all it took to make a craft beer.

As avid beer drinkers, we are certainly sensitive to craft beer deception. As such, we can empathize with the plaintiffs on this ground. As defense lawyers, though, we must assert assumption of risk as an affirmative defense. Something about Wal-Mart and the purchase of craft beer just doesn’t sound right in the first place. With so many craft breweries, growler stations, and local bottle shoppes popping up on every street corner, it has never been easier to pick up a craft brew. Wal-Mart certainly isn’t the place we would think of when it comes to trying out a new beer.

Virtual Reality Headsets: Fun New Toy Or Liability Nightmare?

Being a kid at heart, I always hopeful that my Christmas gifts will include a toy. Knowing that to be the case, my parents delivered this year by gifting me a virtual reality headset. Admittedly, I was perplexed when I opened the present. I was aware of the concept – a stereoscopic display and head motion tracking sensors, immersing users in a virtual reality experience – but I did not comprehend the appeal. I assumed the VR experience would have about as much flare as 3D, the first five minutes of fun is outweighed by the doldrums of wearing a pair of ridiculous glasses. But, hey, I got my toy. Why not give it a shot?

Well, I did. Now, I totally understand the VR appeal. Without getting into all of the technical (which I admittedly don’t understand anyways), VR delivers in all of the ways that 3D does not. While 3D movie watching gives added depth of picture and certain effects that “jump out” at the audience, VR puts the user directly into the scene. The problem with 3D alone is that regardless of the effect, the audience is always watching the film on a flat, two-dimensional screen (even if it is a really, really big IMAX screen). VR takes away that limitation, giving the user a full 360 degrees of 3D viewing pleasure.

Technology aside, the biggest draw of VR is the vast array of content. On my first day of use, I cage-dived with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, walked through the streets of Paris, participated in a fight with the Suicide Squad, and stood in a dinosaur habitat in Jurassic Park – from my living room. Chances are that if there is something you want to see or do, there is probably a virtual experience waiting for you with a VR headset.

As great as the experience has been (and still is), the lawyer in me just had to come out after a few days of use. What are the risks/liabilities of using a VR headset? How are these VR headset manufacturers going to be sued? I am not talking about a slip and fall on the virtual Champ Elysees. But, what are the potential health effects of using VR? The product comes with a long list of warnings both in the box and on-screen upon every startup about dizziness, nausea, not to be used by children under 13, etc. But, something tells me that will not be enough. At this time, the long-term effects of using VR are unknown and could be an issue down the road. Only time will tell.

For now, I am going to continue to enjoy the experience. As with anything in life, we assume moderation if the best course of action. How many adventures do we really need each day anyways?