Unreasonably Dangerous Soup? Litigation From A School Cafeteria

We here at Abnormal Use often write about hot beverage litigation. Just last week, we reported on the tale of the hot tea and the airplane.  And, of course, we are no strangers to the McDonald’s hot coffee case.  Most of these hot beverage lawsuits share a common hurdle – the liquid at issue is intended to be served at temperatures the plaintiff’s later deem “unreasonably dangerous.”  If a consumer demands his beverage to be served hot, he shouldn’t be able to sue the restaurant for meeting his expectations.

But what happens when the hot liquid is a cup of soup?  And the consumer is an young old girl in a school cafeteria?

In Wisconsin, an 8-year old girl has sued the Beloit Turner School District over burns she sustained by a cup of soup served by the cafeteria staff at Powers Elementary School.  According to the Janesville Gazette, the complaint alleges:

The hot soup was placed on the girl’s lunch tray. She began to carry her tray to another table, but someone bumped her, and the tray tipped, causing the hot soup to spill onto her left forearm and cause injuries.

Further, she alleges that the School District and its cafeteria staff were

[N]egligent in serving a substance at an unsafe temperature to an 8-year-old child, were negligent in failing to properly instruct its students on how to carry the unsafe substance, failing to properly warn its students of the unsafe substance and the dangers thereof, and failing to properly supervise its employees, agents and students at all times material to this complaint.

At this time, there is no information regarding the temperature of the soup.

As an initial matter, this case is clearly distinguishable from many of its hot beverage predecessors.  First, the plaintiff is a minor and doesn’t share the same degree of culpability for assuming the risk of her food choice (if she actually had one).  Second, she was required to transport the hot soup on a lunch tray through the cafeteria – a scenario that can lead to spills.  As a result, this case could find itself in the hands of a jury.

Nonetheless, a bowl of soup shares one thing in common with a cup of coffee.  Even in a school cafeteria, soup is expected to be served hot.  If not, parents would undoubtedly be complaining at the district office.  While we do not know the actual temperature of the soup served, the school district should not be found liable solely on the basis of serving “hot” soup.

As stated above, this case is unique in that it involves a minor in a school cafeteria.  Obviously, the school has some duty to look out for the safety of students.  But how far should that duty extend?  This is not a case about a corporation allegedly sacrificing safety to protect its profit margin.  School districts all across the country are in dire straits financially.  Should we really require that they provide warning labels on its soup bowls?  Or, will a simple verbal warning suffice?

Certainly, this case presents some novel issues for the hot beverage (or food) progeny.  We will be sure to keep you posted as more information surfaces.