A Tennessee woman is suing Southwest Airlines for $800,000 in damages after a flight attendant reportedly spilled a cup of hot tea in her lap during a flight. Passenger Angelica Keller filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Nashville’s Davidson County Circuit Court alleging the Dallas-based airline didn’t warn her of any potential danger in the delivery of hot tea, The City Paper in Nashville reported. She suffered second-degree burns from the spill, the paper reported.
The lawsuit document explains that Keller ordered hot tea while on Southwest Flight 955 from Nashville to Houston on Dec. 28, 2011. She was seated in the front of the plane at a bulkhead window seat that had no drop-down table or flat surface. Keller had the paper cup of hot water and a clear plastic cup with a tea bag and condiments wedged in her lap. When she tried to take the tea bag, the hot water spilled onto her lap in her groin area.
The lawsuit alleges that despite being fully clothed, Keller’s skin blistered and peeled, and she has permanent scarring. Among her claims, she is suing Southwest for negligence in not providing some type of tray and for not warning her of the potential dangers involved in the delivery and consumption of hot tea in the bulkhead seats.
The lawsuit asks for $300,000 “for property damages, bodily injury, medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other related expenses.” She is also seeking $500,000 in punitive damages.
NBC News reports that Southwest responded with a statement Friday morning: “Our Customers’ safety and comfort are our top priorities, and we safely serve millions of drinks onboard every year. The referenced event is unfortunate and we are currently reviewing it. We can’t provide additional details due to the pending lawsuit that was filed.”
Keller’s attorney, Robert A. Anderson, declined NBC News’ request for comment Friday.
The case draws some parallels to the well-known case from the early 1990s, when an Albuquerque,N.M. woman sued McDonald’s over hot coffee that spilled on her lap in the car. Following a trial, the jury found Stella Liebeck only 20 percent at fault, and she was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages.
Yale Law School professor Steven Duke told NBC News the major issues to be determined in this Southwest Airlines case is primarily how hot the water was.
“Secondary issues would be what measures, if any, were taken to reduce the risk that the hot water would be spilled,” Duke said in an e-mail.
Duke notes that in the McDonald’s case, the fast-food chain had received more than 700 reports of people burned by their coffee.
“Lawsuits based on claims of burns from hot coffee or tea are often joked about as the prime example of a frivolous lawsuit, as was the case with Liebeck v. McDonalds, but that case was not frivolous,” Duke said. “The lawsuit against Southwest Airlines may or may not be frivolous depending on the facts of the case which are typically decided by a jury.”
Duke believes Keller getting $800,000 is unlikely “unless the plaintiff can prove outrageous behavior by airlines personnel and can get punitive damages.”