Tea Time! A Frivolous Claim Or A Dangerous Product?

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Michael J. Robinson, Associate
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According to a recent press release Starbucks Corporation is being sued by a patron who claims that he was served tea that was "unreasonably hot, in containers which were not safe," that caused "great physical pain and mental anguish," including burns. 

For most people this will immediately conjure up memories of Stella Liebeck.  Who is that you ask?  She was the woman who sued McDonald’s when she received 3rd degree burns when she was served coffee that was too hot.  In that case a jury awarded her $2.86 million to punish McDonald’s. 

Late night hacks like Jay Leno and David Letterman made a field day out of teasing this woman, but if they knew what really happened, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so quick to tease her and her lawyers. 

In that case Liebeck was a 70 something year old passenger in a car driven by her granddaughter.  Contrary to popular belief, she was not someone in a hurry, on her way to work.  In fact, Liebeck and her driver were parked when a McDonald’s employee delivered the coffee.  Liebeck removed the lid to add cream when the cup she was holding collapsed in her hand.  It collapsed because the coffee inside was so hot it caused the integrity of the cup to be compromised, and thus collapse. 

The steaming hot coffee then fell into Liebeck’s lap and caused 3rd degree burns to her inner thighs and private areas.  Ouch. 

Liebeck sued McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses, which were around $30,000 or so.  McDonald’s steadfastly refused to help pay her expenses.  As a result, she had no choice but to sue them.

 At the trial, an “expert” for McDonald’s testified that the company brewed and served its coffee at 195 degrees.  That is almost steam.  It did so, this expert said, because it made the coffee smell better, and as a result increased the sale of coffee.  On cross examination the McDonald’s expert agreed that McDonald’s KNEW the coffee was burning people all over the country, but the losses in litigation were more than offset by the increased sales from the high temperature brewing. 

In English, McDonald’s knew its coffee was dangerous, but hey, it sold more coffee that way.  Yeah, people got hurt by it, but it didn’t cost McDonald’s anything. 

The Jury was flabbergasted . . . and FURIOUS at McDonald’s.  The jury awarded only a minimal amount of compensatory damages to cover Liebeck’s medical expenses.  It awarded millions in punitive damages to punish McDonald’s. 

How much did the jury award?  It awarded exactly ONE day’s worth of McDonald’s coffee sales.  Not much in the grand scheme but it is clear that the jury was ‘sending a message’. 

Naturally, McDonald’s appealed.  During the appellate process, the case settled the case and only the parties know how much Liebeck received.

Category: Personal Injury

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