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MORTIMER & McDONALDS

In Mortimer, the plaintiff was horsing around with a friend, tripped, tumbled down a flight of stairs to a landing, fell through an exterior wall and 10 feet to the ground. The plaintiff was rendered quadriplegic. The building owner was found negligent of not inspecting and maintaining the building. The Municipality was found negligent of failing to supply a building permit and inspecting the premises in accordance with Codes and Bylaws. The plaintiff was awarded 4.7 million dollars. The judgment was upheld in appeal.

In MacDonalds, a recent famous U.S. case, a senior citizen was served a cup of hot coffee at the drive-through. The senior citizen opened the cup of coffee in her car and spilled it on her lap. The individual received severe burn injuries as a result. Testing indicated that MacDonalds served its coffee at a hotter temperature than did its competitors. MacDonalds reasoning was that coffee marketing groups recommended that coffee be served at these temperatures in order to achieve the optimum aroma and flavour. A jury found the restaurant chain negligent and awarded 3 million dollars. The amount was later reduced.

The above cases, though seemingly different, share a common human factors engineering perspective. Human factors engineering is concerned with the design of the human in his/her environment in order to reduce injury and the occurrence of error. Or, more commonly expressed as 'fitting the task to the person'.

The design of the apartment doorway causing the trip and the inability of the exterior wall to withstand the weight of the falling individuals did not meet a minimum standard of safety. This standard was set out in the National Building Code and By-laws. The events which lead up to the injury were not 'extreme' and the environment should have been engineered to reduce the risk of these events occurring. Similarly, in MacDonalds spilling a cup of coffee on one's lap while driving a car is not 'extreme' behaviour. Reduction in the temperature by 30 degrees Fahrenheit of the cup of coffee would increase the amount of time to serious burning while not significantly reducing the flavour and aroma.

It would appear that courts are recognizing that environments that can be engineered, such as apartment buildings and the temperature of cups of coffee, should be done so to encompass expected levels of human behaviour. Human factors engineers are grateful that their efforts are becoming recognized.

 
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