So…Can You Sue Starbucks Over a Hot Beverage Burn?

By Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S. on November 25, 2017

Product Liability and What It Means for You

How responsible are companies for the products that they serve? That’s a question restaurants and consumers have been struggling with for decades. In particular, purveyors of hot coffee have found themselves the targets of lawsuits after their customers suffer severe burns.

But that’s not the only thing you can (or should) sue for.

The Burn That Launched a Hundred Lawsuits

The problem with serving hot beverages first garnered national attention in 1992 in the famous case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants. On February 27th, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck ordered a cup of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-thru while a passenger in her grandson’s car. As Liebeck held the coffee cup between her knees, she attempted to remove the lid in order to add cream and sugar, accidentally spilling the coffee into her lap in the process. The scalding liquid burned her thighs, buttocks, and groin area, causing third-degree burns.

Liebeck’s injuries were so bad, she had to remain in the hospital for eight days while undergoing skin grafts. She lost almost 20% of her body weight and even after she was discharged from the hospital, she needed in-home care for another three weeks. The injury left her permanently disfigured and she was partially disabled.

One would think that such a case would garner sympathy, but public opinion was largely against Liebeck and many people blamed her for the accident. Prior to the trial, her lawyer only sought a settlement of $20,000, enough to cover her medical expenses and the time her family missed from work while taking care of her. McDonald’s countered with $800. The dispute went to trial, and Liebeck was awarded $2.7 million by the jury, though the case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount prior to an appeal.

And why was it settled? Well, it turns out that McDonald’s was serving its coffee at 180–190°F, which meant the coffee was so hot that it could cause serious, third-degree burns in less than seven seconds. While this temperature range actually fell within the industry standard, that didn’t change the fact that McDonald’s was aware that its coffee temperature was causing injury. In fact, McDonald’s had received 700 reports of customers sustaining coffee burns in the 10-year period leading up to the incident, and had settled those incidents prior to the Liebeck case. Needless to say, negligence did play a role in this case, despite public perception to the contrary.

Welcome to the World of Product Liability

The precedent was set. Restaurants, fast food franchises, and other companies saw a sharp increase in lawsuits filed over their injurious products. This area of law is known as product liability and it serves an important function: protecting all Americans from negligence on the part of corporations.

Recent lawsuits involving Starbucks show how far-reaching Liebeck’s legacy has been. In May of this year, a Jacksonville woman won an award of $100,000 after the lid of her coffee cup fell off as an employee handed it to her through the drive-thru window, spilling it in her lap. In response, Starbucks now offers coffee ice cubes to customers who want cooler coffee but don’t want their drinks watered down.

In two separate cases, the culprit wasn’t overly hot coffee, but tainted beverages. A woman in Clinton, Utah, sued Starbucks for $2 million after being served coffee laced with a cleaning solution used on coffee and espresso machines. She claims she suffered severe burns in her esophagus. Similarly, a Kirkland, Washington, woman is suing Starbucks for an undisclosed amount after being served tainted hot chocolate. She had downed most of the drink when an employee rushed up to her and said there were cleaning tablets in the beverage. The staff refused to tell her what exactly had been in the drink and instead offered her a free drink coupon. Her attorneys, when filing the lawsuit, said she “suffered medical problems for months after drinking the bad beverage.”

While finding something unexpected in your food or drink does not automatically mean you are entitled to a cash settlement, there are strict product liability laws that protect consumers in the event of negligence that results in injury.

Don’t Forget Food Products

Consumers are particularly vulnerable to two types of hazardous food incidents:

  • Contaminated food: the presence of a foreign object or substance in your food, which could include rocks, glass, animal parts, utensils, or anything else that’s not supposed to be there.
  • Food poisoning: involves a person becoming ill due to some type of bacteria that has ended up in the food because of improper food handling.

These types of incidents are the result of negligence on the part of someone along the “food chain.” Unfortunately, it’s not always clear where the negligence occurred, and generally no one will take responsibility for contaminated food without clear, convincing evidence of wrongdoing.

If you have been the victim of bad products, whether scalding coffee or contaminated hot chocolate, it’s important to seek out a Seattle product liability attorney who can fully investigate your claim. The fault may not lie with the restaurant’s staff or owners. The problem may have come from the company that grew or sourced the food, the packagers, the transporters, the wholesaler, the food refiner, or the supermarket where it was purchased.

Food preparation and storage are both delicate operations, and a lot can go wrong if safety protocols aren’t properly followed. As consumers, it may seem like we have no recourse in what was likely an accident, but there are laws in place to protect us. If you have been the victim of food contamination of any kind, you should act quickly to secure legal help and begin the process of seeking the compensation you need to recover. If you have any questions, speak to our product liability attorneys at Hardwick & Pendergast, P.S. Your consultation is free.

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