Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762
ALTHOUGH it may be a little too early in the
year to crown the 2001 Queen of Ridiculous Litigation, this year's frontrunner
is Brenda Hurff of Washington Township, New Jersey. Her soon-to-be-highness
is currently suing Kellogg and Black & Decker for $100,000 in damages
to her home caused when an unattended Pop-Tart burst into flames inside
In perhaps the stupidest incident to occur in Washington Township in, at
least, the last 20-30 minutes, Ms. Hurff put a Pop-Tart in the toaster and
then drove her children to school. When she returned 20 minutes later, smoke
and firemen were pouring out of her home.
Apparently, this was My Lady's first culinary experience with Pop-Tarts.
Any experienced pop-tarter knows that a Pop-Tart only requires 1 minute
of preparation time. Ms. Hurff must have confused the Pop-Tart toasting
instructions with the toasting instructions for a larger food item, such
as a brontosaurus.
Of course, in fairness to Her Majesty, I'm sure that she did not intend
to toast the Pop-Tart for the full 20 minutes. She probably assumed that
the Pop-Tart would "pop" out of the toaster when it was properly
cooked. In the remaining time, the Pop-Tart would cool and its gooey, delicious,
cherry-filled center could then harden to the consistency of shoe leather,
However, fortune was not so kind to Hurff. It appears that, for some reason,
the Pop-Tart failed to pop. The local fire department concluded that the
cause of the fire was "unattended food," which is the second leading
cause of domestic fires in America. The leading cause is from people who
intentionally light themselves on fire to avoid watching the TV show, Big
Now, there was once a time in America when this would have been the end
of the story. Brenda Hurff would have replaced the toaster and prayed that
her husband didn't notice that the walls were black or that the house had
a hickory smell to it. And if Mr. Hurff were anything like me, it would
have worked too.
However, that day is long gone in America. Instead of being defensive and
embarrassed, Brenda Hurff took the offensive. She not only filed a lawsuit
against the manufacturers of the Pop-Tarts and the toaster but also, allowed
her lawyer to contact the media about the case.
This lawsuit is being brought under the product liability theory of tort
law (or in this case, tart law). In a product liability case, the plaintiff
(Hurff) claims that she suffered damage as a result of a defective product
placed in the marketplace by the defendant. In this case, Her Lordship is
going for a double whammy by claiming that both the Pop-Tarts and the toaster
In tort law, products can be defective in a number of ways. For instance,
a product can be defective due to faulty manufacturing. Anyone who ever
bought an American car during the 1970s is familiar with manufacturing defects.
For instance, when the steering wheel of your car came off as you drove
away it from the dealership, this was a manufacturing defect and not a "feature"
as argued by the salesperson.
Also, a product may be defective if it is faulty by design. The classic
example of such a product is the classic candy, Jawbreakers. As the name
implies, this product was designed to break your jaw if you bit into it.
When viewed in this light, Hurff may have a pretty strong case. She may
be able to successful argue that the Pop-Tarts were manufactured improperly,
causing them to wedge themselves into the toaster. Likewise, she can argue
that the spring mechanism in the toaster was faulty or that the toaster
should have been designed to shut off after a certain time.
Interestingly, any of these arguments could be effective with a jury. Of
course, this is not saying much because juries do not often need good reasons
to hand down large verdicts against major corporations. In fact, for companies
like Kellogg and Black & Decker facing a jury is almost as risky as
opening an all-you-can-eat diner within 100 miles of Rosie O'Donnell. Therefore,
it is entirely possible that Hurff's lawyers will be able to convince the
jury that Kellogg is liable because the Pop-Tart should have been designed
to hurl itself out of the toaster when it reached a certain temperature.
However, Hurff does have one very large obstacle to clear in her case -
the warning labels. The Pop-Tart box contains not just one, but actually
two, warning labels to prevent just this situation.
The first warning label is in bold capital letters and reads: "ATTEND
TOASTING APPLIANCE WHILE HEATING." And to make sure that the message
is clear to even the least literate amongst us,
there is a second warning label in red ink that reads: "Do not leave
toasting appliances unattended due to possible risk of fire."
In short, Brenda Hurff was clearly warned of the dangers of leaving the
house with Pop-Tarts in the toaster. In fact, she could have only been warned
more clearly if the warning label read: "Brenda, don't leave these
Pop-Tarts in the toaster when you take the kids to school. Also, remember
to make sure that little Katie wears her hat and gloves."
Nevertheless, if I were a betting man (and I am), I'd give Her Royal Highness
a good chance of winning this case. As a result, Kellogg and Black &
Decker may decide to settle this case for the cost of a new toaster, house
repairs and a crown for the soon-to-be reigning Queen of Ridiculous
Sean Carter is a practicing attorney, stand-up comedian and humor writer. Comment by clicking here.
09/04/01: Can't beat the competition? Sue, baby, sue!
© 2001, Sean Carter