Duty, breach, causation, and damages. Those are the elements of a negligence claim, one that a Mississippi lawyer tried to pursue because a Popeye’s chicken failed to provide him with a knife for his drive-through order. Yes, you read that right.
Paul Newton Jr. of Gulfport, Mississippi had to undergo emergency surgery to remove a piece of chicken lodged in his throat that he claims he choked on because the fast-food chain failed to provide him a knife to cut the chicken into pieces. Newton ordered two chicken breasts, red beans and rice, a biscuit and a soft drink. What did he get with his meal? A spork. Instead of being able to use a knife to cut the chicken into appropriate pieces, Newton claims he was left to “hold a chicken breast in his hands and to tear off pieces thereof with his teeth.”
Newton is suing Popeye’s Chicken because he says it’s their duty to provide customers with the proper utensils needed in order to eat the food they ordered. Not only does he want Popeye’s to start providing the correct utensils to their patrons, but he asked for medical expenses, pain and suffering, and any other damages that could be shown at trial. As ridiculous as this claim sounds, does it have a legitimate basis for an award of damages?
Did Popeye’s Owe a Legal Duty to its Customers?
You can’t win a negligence claim if there was no legal duty to begin with; this is the first step to look at when determining whether a negligence claim has any standing. Newton claims Popeye’s owes a duty to provide appropriate utensils for safe consumption of purchased food orders.
The most common example of a created duty is through a doctor-patient relationship. A doctor has a legal duty to provide a patient with competent medical care. The outcome of these cases are dependent on the facts and circumstances of the case at hand—competent medical care doesn’t always mean the same thing in each situation. Think of it more in terms of what care is reasonable. What kind of care is expected from a doctor in a relatively similar situation with relatively similar credentials?
Same rules apply for a consumer and a fast food chain they choose to visit. Now restaurants usually have premise liability where they have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect their patrons from harm. Was there foreseeable harm to the patron on behalf of the owner? No foreseeable harm, no duty. Think slip and fall accidents.
Does this apply to choking on a piece of chicken? Certainly not under premise liability, but you could argue the same general principles. Is it foreseeable that a customer would choke because they didn’t receive the correct utensils? Seems a bit of a stretch but crazier rulings have come out before.
Did Popeye’s Breach Any Duties?
Once again, there’s so many aspects involved in a negligence claim, but if there was in fact a legal duty for Popeye’s to provide appropriate utensils, the next question becomes what’s considered appropriate. Is a knife appropriate for chicken? Would a reasonable customer expect to receive utensils in their fast-food order? If you order a salad at McDonald’s, don’t you expect to receive a fork?
Did the Breach Cause Damages?
Would a reasonable patron have eaten the chicken without a knife? Mississippi is a pure comparative fault state, which means Newton can still collect damages from Popeye’s even if he was partially at fault for choking. Regardless of actual fault, though, first causation needs to be proven and this can get tricky.
Would a failure to provide a knife really have caused Newton to choke? It’s definitely arguable, but I don’t think Newton could win based on the theory of actual cause that “but for” Popeye’s failure, the harm wouldn’t have occurred. He certainly could have very easily taken smaller bites of the chicken. Most reasonable patrons would exercise ordinary care for their own protection when eating and chewing food, which leaves me to believe Newton assumed the risk of eating a piece of uncut chicken. Had Popeye’s actually provided a knife, there’s no way to know whether Newton wouldn’t have still choked.
What about proximate cause? Was it reasonably foreseeable to Popeye’s that failing to provide appropriate utensils would cause a customer to choke? In my opinion, no. When you order that salad at McDonalds—yes, of course you expect to receive a fork because it’s easier to eat that way. You can still eat the salad without a fork, though, and doing so wouldn’t foreseeably cause choking.
The case certainly has standing, but whether or not it’s legitimate enough to win is a question Popeye’s luckily won’t have to wait to find out, as Newton has since dropped his case.