Hot coffee and flimsy lids is an accident waiting to happen.
A Florida jury has awarded $100,000 to a woman who suffered second-degree burns to her abdomen when the lid popped off her Starbucks coffee. Such lawsuits have yielded mixed results over the years, from the infamous million-dollar McDonald’s case to a similar lawsuit against Starbucks in 2015 that ended in no recovery for the victim.
Rather than focusing on the temperature of the coffee, per se, the Florida case hinged on Starbucks’ signature coffee cup. Joanne Mogavero’s lawyers argued that the store failed to warn customers that the lids were prone to popping loose. At trial, a Starbucks representative acknowledged that the company gets about 80 complaints every month about lids that pop off or leak, causing burns and other havoc.
Hot coffee lawsuits (or any product liability lawsuit) may or may not pan out. Whether victims get justice for injuries from dangerous and defective products depends on many factors. The statute. The jury. The lawyers. Prior incidents. The facts of the case.
In 2015, a North Carolina police officer sued Starbucks for third-degree burns in a similar popped-lid incident. The defense made much of the fact that he stopped at home to have the burns photographed before going to the emergency room. Despite strong testimony that Matthew Kohr’s health and life deteriorated as a result of his injuries, a jury decided Starbucks was not negligent and he was not compensated.
In 2011, a Southwest Airlines passenger suffered severe burns and permanent scarring to her thighs and buttocks when hot water for tea spilled in her lap. Her lawsuit contended that the airline and flight attendant were negligent in serving her a scalding-hot beverage in an impractical paper cup and in a seat with no tray to set it upon. Angelica Keller, a construction worker, was awarded $500,000 for her injuries and disfigurement.
In 1992, in the landmark McDonald’s case, a jury awarded millions of dollars to a 79-year-old New Mexico woman who suffered such severe burns to her thighs and genitals that she required skin graft surgery. Stella Liebeck sued only after she requested $20,000 to cover her medical bills and McDonald’s counter-offered $800. At, trial the jury awarded medical expenses, plus pain and suffering, and added punitive damages of $2 million because of a history of hundreds of hot coffee complaints. But a judge later reduced the total award to $640,000 and she eventually settled for a confidential sum less than that.
Liability is the tricky part of product liability
At a restaurant, servers will warn you when a ceramic plate is hot enough to burn your hands. But at the drive-thru, no one ever says “Be careful, that coffee may scald and scar you.” It’s common knowledge that coffee-to-go is served piping hot. No one disputes that hot beverages can cause second- and third-degree burns. The crux of the case is establishing that the defendant had a duty to warn (dangerous temperature) or delivered the product in a negligent manner (defective lids). Or, with other types of products, whether there was an inherent flaw in the design or negligence in the manufacturing or assembly.
If you were injured by a consumer product or workplace equipment, a personal injury attorney with experience in product liability litigation can examine your situation to determine if you have a viable lawsuit.
Source: Florida woman severely burned by Starbucks coffee awarded $100K (USA Today)