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North Carolina Police Officer Loses Lawsuit Against Starbucks

As of May 8, 2015, the jury was deadlocked 11-to-1 over a case where a police officer sued Starbucks for third degree burns related to a loose coffee lid. The stress from the burns triggered his Crohn’s disease, and the police officer ultimately had to have part of his intestine removed. The lid from the coffee popped off of the cup, and the cup collapsed in the officer’s lap. Starbucks in that area gave free coffee to officers in uniform. The officer was asking for damages between $50,000 and $750,000.

In one report, the officer stated that he thought he was “doing the right thing” by bringing this lawsuit against Starbucks. The report seems to indicate that he wanted to make Starbucks accountable for the damages that he suffered because he believed he was morally obligated.

The Result of the Case
At the time of the deadlock, the judge stated that he would declare a mistrial (causing the entire trial to have to be repeated), if the jury could not come up with a unanimous decision. However, after the jury announced their deadlock, both sides stated that they were willing to take a verdict with only ten members of the jury in agreement.

The jury found for Starbucks, presumably agreeing with the argument that the officer was negligent in his handling of the coffee and that the officer’s preexisting condition really caused his need for the removal of his intestine. One of the major factors that contributed to Starbucks winning the case was that the police officer waited hours to seek medical attention, and even went home to photograph the burns before seeking help.

The Eggshell Skull Rule
One of the interesting aspects of this case is that it plays on the traditional “Eggshell Skull Rule” or the “Thin Skull Rule.” This is a well-known common law rule that is still in use today. “Common law” means that it originated in English law and was transported to the United States as the U.S. developed its own legal system. The term common law is also used to indicate that the law was developed by the courts, not through a statute or legal code.

The Eggshell Skull Rule is a personal injury rule that means that the person who committed the wrong “takes their victim as they find them.” If the victim has a weakness or specific vulnerability, then the wrongdoer is still liable for the extra damages that their action may have caused. The wrongdoer must compensate the victim for all of the damages caused, even if they are more severe than what the average person would have suffered as a result of the same act.

The Eggshell Skull Rule in Action
Consider an example. Imagine that a child and a babysitter are having an argument. The child does not want to come inside, but the babysitter insists that the child must, so the babysitter grabs the child’s arm and begins to pull him inside. The child immediately breaks down and starts sobbing and grabbing his arm, clearly in pain. The babysitter has aggravated a serious medical condition that makes the bones weak, and has actually broken the child’s arm. In children without this condition, the injury never would have occurred. However, the babysitter would still be liable for the harm caused, even though neither the babysitter nor the child knew that he had this condition.

The coffee case was similar because the officer argued that the burn aggravated his medical condition. However, one of the reasons that he may have lost the case was that the two are not as connected as the child with the broken arm (above). The Eggshell Skull Rule will apply in most cases, however, so it is important to speak with an attorney about any and all damages related to a personal injury case.

Barry Sommers

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