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Instant Soup Manufacturers: Does Your Product Package Increase the Risk of Burn Injury?

This story discusses the relatively high risk of serious burns young children may incur from tipping over cups of some brands of instant chicken noodle soup.

The purpose of this posting is not to critique any particular manufacturer’s product design, or to analyze the factual support for the National Institutes of Health study upon which the news story was based.  Rather, it is simply to call attention to a risk management issue — why sell a product in a relatively unsafe package when consumers will buy it in comparably-priced, safer packaging?

Some readers may ask whether this issue is just a redux of the purported McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit impetus for tort reform.  It is not, for at least three reasons.

First, regardless of the disputed merits of the McDonald’s lawsuit that involved an adult who should know coffee is served hot, the chicken soup study addressed injuries children incurred.  Even if a jury finds that a child was comparatively negligent in causing his or her burn injuries, it may find that the child was less culpable than a similarly-situated adult.  Children are also often sympathetic plaintiffs; even more so if they have incurred an horrifically painful burn injury that resulted in permanent scarring.

Second, the cost of selling the soup in a more stable package (e.g., a foam bowl) is likely minimal.  Consumers will also likely buy just as much soup sold in a bowl (or another tip-resistant container) instead of a cup — a plaintiff’s attorney will almost certainly contend at trial that many manufacturers seem to have no trouble sourcing foam bowls and selling their products at competitive prices.

Finally, the cost of litigating just one serious burn injury case may approach the cost of switching to a more stable container.  A one-time investment in risk management may also pay dividends in the court of public opinion.