Over the past few years, the Washington State Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Barbara A. Madsen, has heard cases involving meth addicts, stolen BMWs, coffee shop burglaries and taxes on cable TV. But if it agrees to hear the case of Edward Bylsma v. Burger King, as the Seattle Post-Intelligence reports the the Ninth Circuit of Appeals to have recommended, it will likely confront the first case in its 123-year history in which the principle material agents are a hamburger and a wad of human spit.
The case in question dates back to March 2009, when Bylsma, a deputy sheriff in Clark County, stopped for lunch at a Burger King in Vancouver, Wash.. He ordered a Whopper. But when he got his burger, he started to feel "uneasy;" his gut said something was wrong. He peeled back the burger's bun to make sure everything was OK -- and saw a huge, white glob of spit sitting on top of the patty.
Deputy Bylsma felt ill all day; he claims that he even vomited on account of his emotional distress. He sent the burger away for DNA testing to try and trace the spit back to an individual person. When the results linked the loogie to Burger King employee Gary Herb, Bylsma moved to sue Burger King. He said that he became unable to eat food from restaurants and lived in fear of contracting a foodborne illness.
He's been pursuing the suit ever since, without much success. But today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer article explains that the Ninth Circuit could not determine whether "emotional distress" alone can constitute grounds for a liability suit under Washington state law. The Ninth Circuit asked the Supreme Court to clarify the issue.
On its own, then, Edward Bylsma v. Burger King may sound humble. But an entire host of potential future Mealbreaker cases could rest on its shoulders, not to mention lawsuits far from the realm of fast food. And the Court's precedent could well influence decisions outside Washington's borders. The state's Supreme Court is second only to California's in the number of its rulings that are followed elsewhere.