Court of Appeal: €56,000 damages award overturned for woman scalded by hot water from shattered jug
The Court of Appeal has overturned a personal injuries award for a woman who was scalded by hot water after trying to make tea in a glass jug from Dunnes Stores. In the High Court, the plaintiff was awarded €56,000 after the trial judge held that the jug should have had a label to warn users not to place very hot water in the jug.
About this case:
Citation: IECA 12
Court:Court of Appeal
Judge:Mr Justice Seamus Noonan
On Monday, the court said that it was “universally known by reasonable adults of normal intelligence” that hot or boiling water could shatter a glass container and that a court was “required to use its own common sense” when assessing a plaintiff’s claim. In this case, the trial judge was wrong to conclude that the plaintiff had established a case in negligence, the court said.
The plaintiff, Ms Eva Cekanova, bought a glass jug for €10 from Dunnes Stores in Blanchardstown, brought it home and used it to make tea with hot water. She said that this was the normal practise in Slovakia, her home country although she was aware that Irish people used a teapot to make tea. There was no warning or proper use label on the jug when Ms Cekanova bought it.
Subsequently, Ms Cekanova boiled a kettle to make tea. After leaving the water in the kettle for 10 minutes to cool down, the plaintiff poured the water into the glass jug. The plaintiff maintained that the water was not boiling and was about 80 to 90 degrees Celsius. The jug shattered due to the hot water and caused “very nasty burns” to the plaintiffs’ legs.
When the plaintiff returned to the Dunnes shop a few days later, she found the jugs labelled with words in English and French “hand made product, not for use with hot liquids, nes pas utiliser avec liquids chaude, hand wash recommended.”
Ms Cekanova issued personal injuries proceedings against Dunnes Stores, claiming that the defendant was negligent for selling a product which was defective, dangerous and less than merchantable quality. She claimed that Dunnes failed to properly label the glass jug as incompatible with hot water and that if the label had been on the jug, she would not have bought the item.
In an ex tempore ruling, the trial judge accepted that the plaintiff would not have purchased the jug if it had a warning label and said that that the jugs should have had the same warning label that the plaintiff found in the shop days later. The trial judge went on to hold that the defendant should have known that people might try to put very hot water in the jugs. The judge found the plaintiff to be guilty of contributory negligence to the extent of 25 percent and awarded the plaintiff a total of €56,833.72.
Court of Appeal
On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court’s judgment and found that the defendant was not liable for the accident. The judgment, written by Mr Justice Seamus Noonan said that there was nothing in the contract between Dunnes and its supplier which required the glass jugs to be labelled with a warning. The evidence from Dunnes showed that certain items which shipped with the jugs required the labels, but not the jugs themselves. The labels which Ms Cekanova saw subsequently on the jugs were placed there in error from the supplier. In light of this, the trial judge’s conclusion that there was an obligation on the defendant to affix a warning label to the jugs was unsupported by the evidence, the court said.
On the issue of whether the plaintiff would have bought the jug if it had been labelled, the court said that this might have been true. However, it did not logically follow that the defendant was negligent for the absence of the label. “If the label did no more than state what most reasonable people would know in any event, its presence or absence cannot be viewed as a causative factor in the plaintiff’s accident,” the court said.
The fact that boiling or hot water might shattered a glass jug was “not a proposition that requires proof” and a judge was required to use “common sense” in such matters. It was difficult to accept that the plaintiff had never known that a glass jug could shatter this way, considering her evidence was that she allowed the water to cool before pouring it.
Finally, the court held that there was no obligation on Dunnes Stores to account for the Slovakian custom of making tea in glass jugs. If this was a well-known custom, it was notable that Dunnes had sold 11,000 jugs without similar incident.
There were “an infinite number of things” which might cause damage to a person if it was used incorrectly and the court was satisfied that the accident was caused by the plaintiff’s incorrect use of the jug. Since she was aware that tea was made in pots in Ireland, the onus was on the plaintiff to ensure that the jug was suitable for tea-making.
The court was satisfied that the trial judge erred in awarding damages to the plaintiff and allowed the defendant’s appeal. Consequently, the plaintiff received no compensation for the accident. The court was provisionally of the view that the defendant was entitled to its costs in the High Court and Court of Appeal.