Escola v. Coca-Cola

Landmark product liability cases are hard to come by, but the case of Escola v. Coca-Cola was one for the books. A product liability case occurs when a product, used correctly and as intended, malfunctions or becomes faulty in some way and causes serious injury. One personal injury lawyer in Savannah describes product liability cases as the most complicated, as there are often multiple liable parties and anyone involved in the distribution of the item can be held accountable for the injuries of the victim. 

Prior to 1944, product liability cases weren’t really that common. They still aren’t today, in 2020. These days, companies realize just how much it can cost them when they don’t do their due diligence, but back in the 1940s, that simply wasn’t given much thought.

It all started when waitress Gladys Escola was working her shift at the restaurant. That particular night, she was putting away glass bottles of Coca-Cola when one of the bottles she was holding suddenly exploded in her hand. The bottle shattered, and caused serious injuries to her hand including a 5 inch deep cut, which went through the muscle and blood vessels of her palm and thumb. 

Escola was later represented by attorney Melvin Belli, who would go on to become one of the most legendary litigators in American history. At trial against Coca-Cola, it was discovered that a witness for Escola, a Coca-Cola delivery driver, had previously seen glass bottles of Coca-Cola shatter spontaneously in similar ways, both in his delivery truck and in the Coca-Cola warehouse. 

Only when Escola brought her case to the Supreme Court of California was she successful. The jury determined that although she couldn’t explain what caused the bottle to explode, she was able to prove that Coca-Cola should be considered negligent in her case under the res ipsa loquitur doctrine.

While the court did ultimately rule in her favor, there is no information available publicly about how much Coca-Cola was ordered to compensate her for the damages she endured. 

Infamous personal injury cases like these are often looked upon as frivolous at the time, as is the case with Liebeck v. McDonalds. But when history looks back on these cases, it becomes all too clear how significant the negligence of others can have an impact on the lives of those their negligence touches. Today, it is unlikely an individual or corporation would be able to get away with brushing such a case under the rug.

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