"Home of Throwed Rolls" Sued for Throwin’ Rolls

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Really for hittin' a gal in her cornea and whatnot after them rolls was throwed. But there's lawyerin' afoot now, that's definite.

Lambert's Cafe was founded in Sikeston, Missouri (in the "bootheel") in 1942, and now has three locations due to the popularity of its food and atmosphere. Never been there myself (I'm from the opposite corner of Missouri) but based on the web page you might describe the atmosphere as "Ozark Fun"—rustic (there's a wagon wheel out front), with down home good eatin' food and not all snooty like them fancy places up in St. Louis, where folks wear ties and such. Lambert's is known for its fresh hot rolls and, more to the point, for the fact that they throw 'em at you.

That the rolls is throwed ain't a secret.

Throwed rolls
It's a sellin' point.

Made from scratch and baked fresh all day, every day–hot rolls from LAMBERT'S are not only fun to catch, but delicious to eat. Spread some real butter on them or get adventurous and try some country sorghum molasses on them. But, like we said, the real fun is catching a roll. Even more fun is watching other people catch them, or at least try to. Dozens of hot rolls are flying through the air every few minutes at LAMBERT'S, so be alert and have a roll.

Despite these specific warnings, given the number of rolls throwed (they bake over 2.2 million per year, the site claims, though likely not all are throwed), it was probably inevitable that sooner or later somebody would get hit in the eye. That person sued Wednesday (Riverfront Times, KFVS).

According to the reports, the plaintiff claims she "sustained a lacerated cornea with a vitreous detachment and all head, neck, eyes and vision were severely damaged" by the roll. Seems very unlikely that "all head [and] neck" were severely damaged by a dinner roll, unless they throw them at something close to escape velocity, but let's assume the other injuries are at least possible.

The obvious precedent here is the lawsuit against the Kansas City Royals by the guy who claimed its mascot Sluggerrr threw a hot dog into his eye socket. While a jury eventually found in favor of the Royals, Missouri courts rejected the Royals' argument that as with the risk of foul balls, one who goes to a baseball game assumes the risk that a guy in a lion suit will launch a dog at his or her face. (For all the details you could want on that five-year saga, start here.) But there, the plaintiff had a decent argument that, as one court put it, "the risk of being hit in the face by a hot dog is not a well-known incidental risk of attending a baseball game." Is that going to work here?

I doubt it. "The basic principle of this defense is easily stated: if a person voluntarily consents to accept the danger of a known and appreciated risk, that person may not sue another for failing to protect him from it." Coomer v. Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. (Mo. en banc June 24, 2014). That consent can be express, like signing a waiver, but most cases involve arguments that you can infer consent from the circumstances. That is, if you go to a baseball game, we infer (or presume) that you know there may be foul balls and have implicitly consented to the risk of being hit by one. (See also this July 24 WSJ op-ed by Randy Maniloff [PDF].) But individual cases aren't always that easy. Like, what if you got hit because a dinosaur hit you with its tail and distracted you? (Yep.)

The Missouri Supreme Court held that the question is whether the plaintiff was "injured by a risk that is an inherent part of [the activity]." If so, the defendant isn't liable at all unless it negligently "altered or increased" the risk and that caused the injury. If these rules don't apply, then a jury has to apply comparative fault and decide who was responsible to what extent (50/50, or whatever).

Obviously, the problem—and the reason that assumption-of-risk cases are so inconsistent—is defining "the activity." The Royals argued that "the activity" included stuff like mascot antics, but the court held otherwise. Here, is "the activity" eating dinner—in which case you generally don't expect to have things thrown at your head (except maybe at Thanksgiving)—or is it "eating dinner at Lambert's Cafe, the Home of Throwed Rolls," in which case you'd be stupid not to expect it?

Practically speaking, I think the issue in the latter kind of cases is how far the system is going to allow them to get. Because if it does get to a jury, as in the Royals case that jury is likely to award exactly zero dollars, whatever the rules are. But trials are expensive, so if a judge doesn't throw (no pun intended) the case out early it basically forces the defendant to settle. (Which Lambert's has done in a couple of prior cases, according to one report.)

If the plaintiff here isn't going to be extremely reasonable, Lambert's might want to demand a quick trial date in order to set a precedent. I think the comments on KFVS's website (e.g. "Keep throwing them rolls!" and "We love the roll throwing … Please distinguish which 'Meehan Law Firm' is suing them before we are run out of town, 'cause it definitely ain't us!") support my verdict prediction.