The Poisson Distribution

If Ms. Valerie Schremp Hahn had not reported the story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, then the story would had to have been invented by a tort reformer, or perhaps by a masochistic torts law professor.

Mr. Poisson is a murderer; actually he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, as a result of his crime.  He stole the tip jar, containing less than $5.00, from a Starbucks coffee shop in Crestwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  A paying customer, Roger Kreutz, saw this crime unfold, and yearing for a Darwin award, gave chase to the purloining Poisson.  A struggle ensued, but Poisson managed to get into his get-away car, and back into Mr. Kreutz.  Mr. Kreutz died shortly afterwards from the mayhem. See Hahn, Estate of man sues Starbucks over death (March 9, 2011).

Having served one year in prison, Mr. Poisson is now a free man.  The surviving Kreutz family has focused their outrage not at the murderous thief, but at Starbucks for the grievous misstep of having left the tip jar out on the counter without a warning.

Lest you think that the Kreutz family is a narrow-minded, money-grubbing lot, consider this.  Last year, the Kreutzes invited Poisson to a reunion at the Crestwood Starbucks, to shower him with forgiveness, and to help with the planting of a memorial tree for Roger.  Ms. Hahn’s article inclues a photograph, of Mr. Poissson, with a sinister smile, spreading the ashes of his victim, on the ground around a young tree.  Presumably, Mr. Poisson had enough sense not to go into the nearby Starbucks shop, where he might have been tempted once again by the tip jar, or perhaps by some old woman’s handbag.

And lest you think that the Kreutz family is a forgiving lot, consider this.  The Kreutzes have filed a wrongful death suit against Starbucks.  Roger’s death, they say, was directly and proximately caused by leaving the tip jar on the counter, unanchored and without a warning to innocent bystanders not to chase anyone who might steal the tips.  Mr. Poisson, who had received absolution for his murderous deed from the Kreutzes, was not named in the suit.

The story is almost too sick to be true.  The story is almost sick enough to be a law professor’s torts examination problem. 

What are Starbucks’ legal options?  Until they have a chance to appeal to the court of common sense, Starbucks might consider impleading Mr. Poisson, the agent of death in this case.  Perhaps they ought to sue the Kreutzes for having caused emotional distress by their intentional, wonton trespass arising from spreading Roger Kreutz’s ashes on the ground outside their coffee shop.  Finally, perhaps a subsequent, remedial is in order:  post Mr. Poisson’s picture on the walls of all Starbucks stores, to identify him, his previous crime, and to caution patrons not to chase him if he robs the store lest they want to end up like Roger.

This lawsuit will be worth watching.

The Kreutzes’ misdirected lawsuit is hardly unique in the annals of American law.  Consider all the lawsuits directed at companies that supply products and materials to employers, who in turn fail to control and supervisor workplace conditions.  When employees are harmed, they cannot sue their employers because of the preclusive effects of most Worker’s Compensation Acts.  The result is that the injured workers choose to sue the remote suppliers, who cannot control and supervise the workplace.  Why?  Because you can always sue.  Sadly, this sort of thing happens all the time.

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