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Sheenan v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Decided: August 3, 1956.

LILLIAN SHEENAN, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
THE COCA-COLA BOTTLING COMPANY OF NEW YORK, INC., A CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Clapp, Hall and Hegarty. The opinion of the court was delivered by Clapp, S.j.a.d.

Clapp

Plaintiff, while drinking a bottle of Coca Cola, noticed a very bitter taste, discovered a foreign substance in the bottle and became ill. This action ensued. The jury found the defendant, The Coca-Cola Bottling Company of New York, Inc., guilty of negligence, returning a verdict against it for $4,103.47. The appeal brings up questions as to causation, as to the admissibility of certain expert testimony and as to the weight of the evidence.

The foreign substance was a mass of soft dark brown sludge (i.e. , a muddy mass) or a brownish prunish-like mass about an inch thick, that, at the time plaintiff discovered it, had plugged the end of the straw through which she was drinking. It looked to her and to several women,

fellow employees who were present, like a cigar butt; there was also sediment in the bottle, leaving the bottom very thick and all black. Plaintiff had finished three-quarters of the bottle before she noticed the taste; thereupon she discovered the alien matter in the liquid. One of these employees remarked at the time, "That is going to make you sick." The other employees, jesting over the fact that plaintiff does not smoke, said:

"Gee, her that doesn't smoke and she gets a cigar butt in her coke bottle."

Plainly this was no appetizing morsel.

This episode took place shortly after 6:30 P.M., May 18, 1954. At 7:15 P.M. plaintiff felt pains in her stomach and later vomited (for the first time in her life); thereafter her mouth and throat felt on fire; and a cup of hot water given to her brought out a cold sweat. Subsequently she called a doctor and was sick "at" her stomach all night long. Next morning her throat was very sore, and her lips were swollen and burned; blisters had appeared on the lower and upper lips, one on the corner of the mouth and others around the gums. The blisters went away in a couple of days, except for one which lasted until the end of August. She never before had had a fever sore. Her stomach hurt "like somebody pulling a knife through."

An examination made by her doctor that morning disclosed first and second degree burns of not only the lips, but also the throat and the lining of the mouth. She stayed away from her employment for about ten days at that time (incidentally she had been in the same employment for about 35 years). She also stayed away on June 16 or 17 and June 29 or 30 because her throat bothered her, as a result of the same condition. Stomach complaints continued for more than two months, and X-rays taken at the end of that period revealed at that time an existing gastritis, an inflammation of the lining of the stomach. Since then, she occasionally has had severe pains in the stomach and also has had difficulty in swallowing, a difficulty that took longer

to clear up than the gastritis. A green and white spongy matter kept working up out of her throat. Indeed at the time of the trial, in November 1955, she still had a feeling that there was a hair or a thread in the back of her throat, which brought on spells of coughing; this the doctor said is now "subjective," a matter of "nerves." We have detailed these ailments at some length because of the question (considered later) as to the amount of the verdict.

Defendant's first point is that there was no evidence to go to the jury on the issue of causation, and that the trial court should therefore have granted its motions for judgment and dismissal. According to proofs adduced by defendant, the muddy sludge in the bottle had the physical and chemical properties of brown wrapping paper, to which had been applied a starch paste apparently, so that it could be used as gummed paper for the sealing of bundles or cartons. The stuff was found to be "non toxic," "non bacteriological," "almost sterile"; "there was nothing wrong with it." These proofs stand uncontradicted. And so (defendant says or intimates) the implication of deleteriousness, which may be deduced from the proximity existing between the ingestion of the Coca Cola and the symptomology above related (cf. Cassini v. Curtis Candy Co. , 113 N.J.L. 91, 94 (Sup. Ct. 1934)), has been eliminated from the case.

But does that end the discussion? Harmless though the substance was, nevertheless from the proofs adduced as to psychosomatic reactions, a reasonable man could say that her ailments originated in the contents of the bottle. The very proximity of events, above stated, can be said to support such a conclusion. Cf. Wilson v. Coca Cola Bottling Co. , 3 N.J. Super. 102 (App. Div. 1949); Rudolph v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. , 4 N.J. Misc. 318 (Sup. Ct. 1926). And further support is furnished by testimony of plaintiff's physician who, eliminating all other causes "within reason," attributed her ailments "most probably" to the contents of the bottle, though admittedly ...


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