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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 2001 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Sean Carter

Sean Carter
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Consumer Reports

Pop-torts -- 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 her toaster.

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, only tougher.

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 Brother 2.

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 were defective.

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 Litigation.

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