Thursday, June 03, 2010

Chude v. Jack-In-The-Box (Cal. Ct. App. - May 27, 2010)

You'd have thought that after all the terrible publicity about the McDonald's "hot coffee" lawsuit that no one would bring a nearly identical action against Jack-in-the-Box.

You'll notice, however, the strikingly different result here. This case doesn't even get to trial, and is largely dismissed on a motion for summary judgment.

But not for the reason you might expect.

When Teckla Chude gets her coffee, she's going through the drive-thru. In her uninsured vehicle. So Jack-in-the-Box argues she can't recover any damages for pain and suffering pursuant to Prop. 33 (Section 3333.4 of the Civil Code) since she's uninsured.

Chaude responds that this provision only applies to car accidents and the like. Which I'm sure was indeed its central intent. But Jack-in-the-Box argues that the text of the statute applies to any injury "arising out of the operation and use of a motor vehicle," so it covers her injuries, as she was using her car at the time. And the Court of Appeal agrees, arguing that such a broad interpretation of the statute serves the valuable public policy goal of encouraging drivers to have liability insurance.

I'm of two minds here. On the one hand, I know that when I'm deciding whether or not to have automobile insurance, the very first thing I think about is: "Will I be able to recover for spilled coffee in a drive-thru if I decline to get coverage?" Definitely. Ditto for when I was voting on Prop. 33. Had a clear picture in my mind that this would cover a McDonald's coffee scenario.

On the other hand, this accident occurred inside the vehicle, and Chude's injuries were expressly alleged to be increased because she couldn't get out of the vehicle after the coffee spilled because the drive-thru was too narrow to let her open her door. That seems like it's pretty darn related to actually driving -- or at least "driving through".

But tell me how this case comes out. Shaun drives his car to a park twenty miles from his home. He's inside the vehicle and takes a brief nap. Five minutes later, Shanker hits a golf ball that's wildly errant and hits Shaun in the face. He's uninsured. Can Shaun really not sue Shanker for pain and suffering? The accident "arose out of the operation" of the vehicle, right? After all, he was inside it at the time, and absent driving to the park, he'd never be there. And hosing Shaun would encourage others to buy insurance. Seems like under the Court of Appeal's rationale, no recovery.

But should it really matter if I happen to be inside the car or twenty feet away from it when I'm hit? Or if I'm hit two minutes or two hours after driving? What if I drove ten of the miles and then walked the other ten to the park? It seems absurd if whether I can recover depends upon such practically irrelevant differences. At least to me.