Lee v. Crookston Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

188 N.W.2d 426 (1971)

Quick Summary

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Claire Lee (plaintiff), a waitress, was injured by an exploding Coca-Cola bottle supplied by Crookston Coca-Cola Bottling Company (defendant). She sued for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. The trial court excluded strict liability from jury consideration and found in favor of Coca-Cola based on contributory negligence.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota ruled that excluding strict liability and submitting contributory negligence were errors. It reversed the lower court’s decision and granted a new trial to consider both theories of liability.

Facts of the Case

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Claire Lee (plaintiff) was a waitress who suffered injuries due to an exploding Coca-Cola bottle while she was transferring it into a cooler. The bottle, delivered by Crookston Coca-Cola Bottling Company (defendant), did not appear to have been subjected to any external force or extreme temperatures that would cause such an incident. Lee and her husband filed a lawsuit seeking damages for negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty.

During the delivery process, a case of Coca-Cola was placed in the dining area of the steak house where Lee worked. Later, as Lee moved bottles from the case to the cooler, one bottle spontaneously exploded, causing her injury.

The incident was not provoked by any action of Lee, as she did not strike or mishandle the bottle. Despite the lack of evidence for external force, the bottle’s explosion resulted in Lee’s injury.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. The trial court heard the case focusing on negligence and breach of implied warranty but did not allow the jury to consider Lee’s strict liability claim.
  2. The jury found in favor of Coca-Cola, leading Lee to appeal the decision on the grounds that the trial court erred in its handling of the strict liability claim and the issue of contributory negligence.

I.R.A.C. Format


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Whether the trial court erred in refusing to submit Lee’s strict liability claim to the jury and in submitting the issue of contributory negligence for the jury’s consideration.

Rule of Law

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Strict liability imposes liability on manufacturers or sellers for injuries caused by dangerously defective products, without requiring proof of negligence or contractual privity. To establish liability, evidence must show that the product was defective, the defect existed when it left the defendant’s control, and it was the proximate cause of the injury.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The Minnesota Supreme Court identified reversible error in the trial court’s decision to submit the issue of contributory negligence to the jury. The expert testimony from Coca-Cola’s witness that suggested mishandling by Lee was deemed speculative and without proper foundation since it was based on an assumption contrary to uncontroverted evidence.

Additionally, the court found error in not submitting the strict liability claim to the jury. The circumstantial evidence presented under the res ipsa loquitur doctrine was sufficient for both negligence and strict liability theories.

The court emphasized that plaintiffs should not need to prove a specific defect but may rely on circumstantial evidence suggesting it is more probable than not that a defect existed when the product left the defendant’s control.


Conclusion Icon

The Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed the trial court’s decision and granted a new trial, allowing for consideration of both negligence and strict liability claims.

Dissenting Opinions

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Justice Peterson dissented, expressing concern that such a ruling effectively imposes absolute liability on manufacturers in bottle explosion cases, making it nearly impossible for them to defend against claims as long as plaintiffs assert no mishandling occurred.

Justice Otis concurred with Justice Peterson’s dissent.

Key Takeaways

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  1. Circumstantial evidence can be sufficient to submit a product liability case to a jury under both negligence and strict liability theories.
  2. Expert testimony must be based on facts supported by evidence in the record; speculative assumptions are not admissible to justify contributory negligence.
  3. The rule of strict liability allows for recovery without proof of negligence if a product defect can be inferred as existing when it left the manufacturer’s control.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What criteria must be met for a product to be considered defectively designed under strict liability?

Under strict liability, a product is considered defectively designed if it fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner, or if the risks of the design outweigh its benefits. The designer or manufacturer must have also failed to adequately warn of the product’s risks.

  • For example: A toaster that has a tendency to overheat and catch fire even when used according to directions could be deemed defectively designed due to its substantial potential to harm consumers.

What are the legal implications if a company fails to provide adequate warnings for a potentially dangerous product?

A company can be held strictly liable for failing to provide adequate warnings if that failure results in harm that otherwise could have been prevented. Not only can this lead to compensatory damages for injuries sustained, but it could also subject the company to punitive damages if the failure is deemed egregious or reckless.

  • For example: A chemical manufacturer that does not provide clear handling instructions and hazard information for a toxic substance can be held liable if users are harmed as a result of inadequate warning.

How does contributory negligence affect the outcome of a strict product liability case?

In jurisdictions where contributory negligence is a factor, if a plaintiff’s own carelessness contributed to their injury, it may reduce their ability to recover damages or bar recovery altogether. However, many states have adopted comparative negligence systems, where damages are apportioned according to fault.

  • For example: If a motorcyclist doesn’t wear a helmet and is injured by a defective motorcycle part, their lack of head protection could be deemed contributory negligence, potentially reducing their compensation reward.


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