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Southwest's Strange Response to a Lawsuit over Spilled Tea

December 10, 2012 at 2:55 PM | by | ()

We have no idea how USA Today managed to spin a 1,300+ word article out of a woman suing Southwest for $800,000 because she got burned by a cup of hot water. 43 year old Angelica Keller was sitting in the front row of the airplane and so didn't have a drop-down tray. She was trying to make herself a cup of tea by dipping a tea bag into the cup of hot water she had just been served. Only instead of doing that, she spilled the water on herself and got 2nd degree-burns. Now she's suing the Texas LCC because that's the world we live in. The End, right?

The article goes on for dozens of paragraphs after that. At first we thought the explanation for the obsessive detail was something like 'travel journalism is just magical that way.' Then we realized that very little of the article is actually about travel. It's actually a history of debates over frivolous product liability lawsuits. You just stopped reading, didn't you?

Don't go. There's actually quite a bit of travel geekery to be had here.

To see why you have to understand the history of cases like Keller's. USA Today notes at frankly astonishing length that the incident echoes the famous McDonald's coffee lawsuit from the early 1990's, where a 79 year old woman sued the fast food company after she spilled a cup of hot McDonald's coffee on herself. The woman, Stella Liebeck, was awarded $160,000 and promptly became the poster-girl for frivolous lawsuits.

Some people have written that her lawsuit wasn't frivolous at all - yes coffee is supposed to be hot, but probably not so hot that Liebeck should have suffered third-degree burns through her clothing - but nonetheless many states passed tort reform legislation by pointing to her story. One of those reforms was recently passed in Tennessee, which is the state that... ta da ... Keller is suing Southwest.

Which brings us back to the travel geekery. Lawsuits like Keller's and Liebeck's turn on the idea of negligence. Who should have done something differently, so that whatever happened wouldn't have happened. Keller says it was negligent of Southwest to serve boiling water capable of giving second-degree burns to a woman in an airplane seat without a tray. Southwest, doing the airline's best I am rubber, you are glue impression, says it was actually negligent of Keller to choose a seat without a tray and then order hot tea.


Maybe the reporter has the explanation wrong. But unless we're very much misreading this, Southwest is saying that there are seats on their airplanes - seats they sell to customers - where as a matter of law travelers are endangering their physical safety by ordering hot water. If that is what they're actually saying, then two quick comments:

1. We're not sure that's a smart thing to say

2. How long will it take Ryanair to put out an ad bragging that they also have unsafe seats where you can severely injure yourself, because the airline is just so darn frugal?

[Photo: jeremyfoo / Flickr]

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