In the latest news from the hot food injury front, a New Jersey appellate court affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against Applebee’s arising from some alleged steak fajita burns. According to reports, a man ordered the signature steak fajita skillet (identified more specifically on the menu as “Sizzling Skillet Fajitas”) from a New Jersey Applebee’s back in 2010 and apparently did not feel he was “eating good in the neighborhood.” When the man bowed his head to pray, he alleges that he heard a sizzling and popping noise coming from the fajita. Thereafter, in the midst of his prayer, he felt grease burning his left eye and face. Panicking from the burns, he knocked the sizzling steak fajitas into his lap, causing additional injury. None of the burns were severe enough to cause scarring, apparently. The man filed suit on the grounds that the restaurant and his waitress failed to warn him the steak fajita skillet meal was hot. The court, however, found that any dangers posed by the dish were open and obvious. The case is Jiminez v. Applebees’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill et al., No. A-2247-13T2 (N.J. App. 2015).
We have to agree with the Court’s ruling. Any hot food failure to warn case should be thrown out as a matter of law when the food contains the word “sizzling” in its title on the restaurant’s menu. Something just doesn’t sound right about ordering “sizzling” fajitas and suing the restaurant when those fajitas are, in fact, sizzling.
What makes the case interesting is a fact seemingly glossed over in the reports – when were the fajitas delivered to the table during the praying process? Thankfully, we have the opinion to let us know that the food had been delivered prior to the man starting his prayer. With this fact in hand, it can be argued that the man should have observed the food sizzling prior to hanging his head over it. The food didn’t leave the kitchen warm and wait until arriving at his table to begin sizzling. On the other hand, if the man had begun praying before the fajitas arrived and the waitress delivered them under his bowed head, then arguably the waitress (and Applebee’s vicariously) could be held liable. Such liability would not come from the temperature of the food but, rather, from the act placing the man in close contact to it without his knowledge.
The most notable omission from the news reports is that this case is absolutely not reminiscent of the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee case even though they can’t help but claim it is. This case had a single cause of action – a negligence claim sounding in premises liability. The McDonald’s case, on the other hand, was couched in product liability where the hot coffee itself was alleged to be unreasonably dangerous and defective by virtue of its temperature. We would have sided with the defendant here under either theory, but let’s at least try to not to compare apples to oranges. Or sizzling fajitas to hot coffee.