Court: “Rum Fireball” Suit May Proceed Against Bacardi
Is Bacardi 151 dangerous? A New York woman certainly thinks so after a bartender’s ill-fated fire trick caused the bottle to act like a “flamethrower” and give her second- and third-degree burns. Her suit against the overproofed rum’s manufacturer, for negligence and strict liability based on defective design, will move forward after an appellate court affirmed a decision by the trial court. At issue is whether or not the warnings and removable flame arrester are adequate given the beverage’s promotion as a tool for pyrotechnic tricks.
As a beverage, the 151-proof rum has an alcohol content of 75.5% and tastes like burning. It can be used as a small part in a few notable cocktails, such as the Zombie, but for the most part it has a reputation as a bringer of blackouts, horrible hangovers and the occasional stretcher—especially in the college-aged set. For those who fancy themselves latter-day Tom Cruises (a la Cocktail), Bacardi 151 and its ilk offer a prime source of flammable liquid to do fire tricks or flaming cocktails. It was this style of “flair bartending” that led to Lauren Sclafani’s injuries.
In 2008, the 31-year-old financial-industry employee went with a client to a bar to have a drink and watch the NCAA basketball tournament. As the Jerry Lee Lewis classic “Great Balls of Fire” came on the jukebox, the bartender poured the rum across the bar and lit it on fire—the fire codes be damned! The flames quickly spread to the bottle and it shot flaming liquid onto Sclafani. She spent three weeks in a hospital’s burn ward, where she underwent surgeries and skin grafts, and suffered long-term injury. She sued the bar, which stopped carrying the item, as well as Bacardi noting that 100-proof, less flammable liquor does a solid job of inebriating people and the flame arrester on the bottle was defectively designed. (For his part, the bartender was charged with reckless endangerment in the second degree and assault in the second degree.)
Bacardi moved to dismiss Sclafani’s claim based on the fact the bottles note “Warning: Flammable” and include a removable flame arrester with its own warning “do not to remove or puncture”. The trial court denied the motion and the Appellate Division agreed, noting in its ruling: “Although Bacardi included warning labels on the bottle of Bacardi 151 and installed a removable flame arrester, it did so while actively promoting the very pyrotechnic uses that caused plaintiff’s injuries.” It also permitted a request for punitive damages to move forward.
Is Bacardi 151 getting a bad rap?
So Bacardi 151 happens to be overproofed enough to be flammable, but is it really an abused and misused liquor? A quick trip over to YouTube (which even the trial court cited) appears to give a resounding yes. From videos of people who seem a tad young drinking on dares, to fire breathing, to numerous flame-related accidents. It’s hard not to see a potential hazard when you sell people aiming to get incredibly hammered something flammable. Unsurprisingly, lawsuits over 151-related burn injuries are not unheard of: A 2002 incident in Florida saw a two women severely burned after a similar bar trick also turned the bottle into a “flamethrower”, leading to a suit alleging that the product “emits a high volume of combustible and explosive vapour” which makes it “unreasonably dangerous” and defective. Bacardi itself treats the product as a step-child, not even mentioning it on its U.S. website.