Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno (1944)

Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. of Fresno
24 Cal.2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944)

Facts: Escola was a waitress in a restaurant. She was putting away glass bottles of Coca-Cola when one of the bottles spontaneously exploded in her hand. She suffered a deep five-inch cut, which severed the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles of the thumb and palm of the hand. The top portion of the bottle, with the cap, remained in her hand, and the lower portion fell to the floor but did not break. The broken bottle was not produced at the trial, because the pieces had been thrown away by an employee of the restaurant shortly after the accident. Escola, however, described the broken pieces, and a diagram of the bottle was made showing the location of the “fracture line” where the bottle broke in two. One of Coca-Cola’s delivery drivers was called as a witness by plaintiff, and testified that he had seen other bottles of Coca-Cola in the past explode and had found broken bottles in the warehouse when he took the cases out, but that he did not know what made them explode. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, following the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur.

Issue: Can the defendant’s negligence in delivering a defective bottle be shown under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur?

Holding: Yes.

Analysis: Although the instrument causing the injury was not under the exclusive control of the defendant at the time of the accident, the defendant did have control at the time the alleged negligent act took place (in this case, the filling of the defective bottle).

Upon an examination of the record, the evidence appears sufficient to support a reasonable inference that the bottle here involved was not damaged by any extraneous force after delivery to the restaurant by defendant. It follows, therefore, that the bottle was in some manner defective at the time defendant relinquished control, because sound and properly prepared bottles of carbonated liquids do not ordinarily explode when carefully handled.

Justice Traynor, in a concurring opinion, argued that instead of deciding the case on grounds of negligence, a rule of strict liability should be imposed on manufacturers whose products cause injury to consumers. He felt that public policy demanded “that responsibility be fixed wherever it will most effectively reduce the hazards to life and health inherent in defective products that reach the market.” He argued that manufacturers were better prepared to handle the costs of injury than individual consumers, and noted that California state law already applied a rule of strict liability to makers of foodstuffs which cause illness or injury.

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