Judge Dismisses Hot Tea Lawsuit Against Starbucks

A judge in Illinois has thrown out a lawsuit filed against Starbucks by a customer who alleges she was burnt by some spilled hot tea. His reason: Just because tea is hot doesn’t mean you have a good reason to sue.

From news-gazette.com:

The facts of the suit were that [the plaintiff] went to the shop to study and purchased a large hot tea. According to her deposition, she wasn’t sure if the lid on the drink was securely in place. She took the drink to a table that she determined was wobbly. Getting up to change tables five to 10 minutes later, the table was jostled and the still-hot drink spilled on to her legs, burning them. She wasn’t certain if she or another customer bumped the table in the crowded business.

Her lawyer said the coffee company was negligent on four fronts — serving tea that was too hot; having wobbly tables that could cause a spill; not double-cupping the beverage; not securing the plastic lid.

But the judge asked the plaintiff’s lawyer a question he couldn’t answer: “What are they to do if people want hot tea? Not sell it in case somebody might spill it?”

He then moved on to dissect the plaintiff’s case, saying it was “pretty speculative” to assert that two cups versus one makes a drink less likely to tip over (especially since some lawsuits against Starbucks have alleged that the double cup throws off the center of gravity making it more likely to spill).

He also asked why, if the plaintiff was concerned about the security of the lid, did she just not remedy that situation herself.

“It seems to me if you’re aware of a condition and choose to do nothing for five to 10 minutes … that can’t be the proximate cause,” he said.

And since the plaintiff had no evidence showing how hot the tea was on that day or how hot the tea would have to be to cause the burns, the judge declared: “As a matter of law I find the fact that a hot beverage could burn you if you pour it on your skin does not stand for the proposition that it’s unreasonably and dangerously hot.”

The plaintiff had been seeking damages in excess of $50,000.

Earlier this month, a judge in NYC dismissed a similar lawsuit. However, in that case the plaintiff alleged that the double-cupping had been the cause of the spill.

Judge dismisses claim against Starbucks over hot tea spill [news-gazette.com]

Comments

Edit Your Comment

  1. Mr. Fix-It says: "Canadian Bacon is best bacon!" says:

    I dunno who this judge is, but I think I like him. :3 Y’get the feeling he’s kinda sick of dealing with cases like this.

  2. yellowshirt says:

    Common sense ftw.

  3. TandJ says:

    Finally !

    A judge with some sense of wisdom in a world that seems to be made of settlements and outlandish jury awards.

    The judge should be up for an award for being rational and wise. (when most are not, especially in California)

    • Clyde Barrow says:

      This judge ROCKS!

    • snoshy says:

      Didn’t bother to RTFA, but I hope the judge makes the plaintiff pay the legal fees for both sides for being a moron. There needs to be enough of a disincentive to filing these frivolous suits.

  4. Buckus says:

    +1 for Common Sense.

    “Hot tea is hot”

    LOL.

  5. LadyTL says:

    Are judges suddenly coming down with common sense these days? This is about the fourth case I’ve heard of where the judge actually made sense.

    • mythago says:

      Judges do this all the time. It’s just that “judge dismisses lawsuit at the early stages” doesn’t make exciting headlines like “person wins $300 million against a big corporation”.

      And funny how we don’t hear screaming about jackpot justice and runaway juries when the WINNAR is a corporation. Did anybody lose their shit about Oracle getting more than a $1 billion dollar verdict? Didn’t think so.

  6. PunctuationMark says:

    Kudos to Starbucks for not just settling with this woman because she happened to file a lawsuit.

    (Insert joke about drink prices)

  7. Miss Dev (The Beer Sherpa) says:

    “What are they to do if people want hot tea? Not sell it in case somebody might spill it?”

    What a brilliant statement.

    It would be lovely if more people chose to take this anti-nanny view.

  8. jerrycomo says:

    Next, Mcdonald.s food made me too fat.

  9. drjayphd says:

    Two cups are too unstable, one cup doesn’t provide enough protection… hmm, if only there was a way someone could invent a cardboard device that provides an extra layer of protection, but only around the middle of the cup, where you’d grab it…

    But seriously, if you weren’t sure the lid was on securely, why would you wait that long? And why would you try to fix it at a table you suspected was unstable? Somehow I’m going to guess she won’t make this mistake again.

  10. FatLynn says:

    The saddest thing about this article is that there is now a Starbucks at 501 E. Green St.

    For god’s sake, people, you have a hundred independent coffee shops on campus. Patronize them.

    • ARP says:

      Do they still have all the Espresso Royale locations? I haven’t been back to Cham-bana in years.

      • iamthelizardqueen says:

        The Starbucks has been at 501 E. Green for at least the past 5 years. And yes, the Espresso Royale locations are still there.

  11. Gravitational Eddy says:

    Excellent!
    Now if we can get a judge to agree that associating with lawyers is condusive to lawsuits being created.
    I’m pretty sure if a lawyer advised the client “you know, if they throw this out, you’ll still owe me $3000 for my bill… you would see a lot less of these lawsuits.
    Think about it, no more mouse in my fries lawsuits, no more finger in my chili lawsuits no more half a frog in my salad….

    I keed, I keed…

    • mythago says:

      Think about it, if lawyers only got paid if they won and had to front all their costs, then they wouldn’t help with dumbass lawsuits because they’d quickly go out of business paying for losers.

      Oh wait! That’s how it ALREADY works.

  12. Mulva says:

    As a resident of Illinois, I really wish I could vote to retain this judge indefinitely, but he’s not in my county.

    The voice of reason in a crazy world, sad that it’s so rare.

  13. mythago says:

    Wow, it’s as if the system has built-in safeguards to get rid of silly lawsuits, and as if this is the norm*, rather than all those “OMG JACKPOT!!!!!” stories you read about in Wall Street Journal headlines.

    Nah, it’s much more fun to be ignorant, isn’t it? Sorry, carry on.

    *Which IT IS.

    • El Matarife says:

      I guess I’m ignorant because I don’t follow lawsuits that get thrown out. I learned something new today.

    • minjche says:

      Wow, Debbie Downer much?

      • mythago says:

        Facts are downers? Wow, *I* learned something today.

        • minjche says:

          I have no issue with the facts, it’s the unreasonable tone and harsh attitude you choose to take in presenting them. Then add to this your projecting a baseless accusation on me (that I didn’t appreciate the facts) in the same manner.

          Take a deep breath, maybe have a cup of tea.

  14. Warren - aka The Piddler on the Roof says:

    “Just because tea is hot doesn’t mean you have a good reason to sue.”

    The same can be said for being a clumsy idiot.

  15. mbgrabbe says:

    Is it Iced tea?

  16. dulcinea47 says:

    Yay! A judge with some sense! And in Illinois even.

  17. EverCynicalTHX says:

    Good call, finally some common sense!

  18. WalterSinister2 says:

    I think the judge was wrong.

    The judge is there to decide issues of law, not issues of fact (except in cases where there is no jury, not like this one).

    The plaintiff provided enough evidence that the jury should have decided. Starbucks said they didn’t have wobbly tables, the plaintiff said they did. Who to believe is a question of fact for the jury, not a question of law for the judge. The only was that the judge would have the authority to do that would be if as a matter of law it didn’t matter whether the table was wobbly. A case is only supposed to be dismissed if the judge can honestly say “even if the jury believes all your evidence, you still lose”. As for the plaintiff’s lawyer, he should have said that they can provide tea that is hot without making it so hot that it will cause permanent scars if it is poured on you 10 minutes later.

    If the plaintiff appeals, it will probably get reversed.

    • mythago says:

      Actually, it looks like it was decided on the law: “the plaintiff had no evidence showing how hot the tea was on that day or how hot the tea would have to be to cause the burns”. In other words, it wasn’t that she said it was 200F and they said it was 130F – she simply didn’t put the facts she needed out there.

      If you read the article, the plaintiff’s experts apparently weren’t on board either.

    • Kitten Mittens says:

      Spoken like a true 1L there…

      Using your standard, there’d never be grounds to dismiss lawsuits because EVERYTHING is a matter of fact. Judges (as a matter of law) or juries can usually decide matters of proximate cause. The spill and resulting injury would not have occurred “but for” the plaintiffs own negligence.

      A wobbly table does not a burn lawsuit make.

    • Clyde Barrow says:

      Common sense and law are supposed to go hand-in-hand which are supplemented by the facts. Facts support the premise of their reasoning otherwise people would be suing over nonsense. Oh that’s right, that’s happening today.

      For instance is a person is cornered into stealing food for his family, this of course is breaking the law. But any judge with compassion and common sense would not put this person in jail based upon the circumstances given (facts). Compassion and common sense have to be balanced along with the law also.

    • Griking says:

      Well it seem as if 99% of the people here disagree with you.

      Are you a lawyer by chance?

    • Laughing-man says:

      You want a jury deliberation on every nonsensical litigation, tying up precious court time? That’s like a court DDoS waiting to happen.

    • Cindymiles says:

      …and its this sort of pseudo intellectual complete lack of sound judgement thinking that has this country where it is today.

  19. Kitten Mittens says:

    What happened here was the plaintiff didn’t present any evidence (other than their burns) – and not some judge proactively shutting this down.

    If she had shown her burns were because the tea at Starbucks was served X degrees warmer than is common, they would possibly still be in court.

  20. Jane_Gage says:

    Now we just need tort reform so the taxpayers’ money isn’t wasted by cluttering up the courts.

  21. El Matarife says:

    It’s little nuggets like this that give me hope for America. That little hope is usually crushed shortly thereafter.

    • Clyde Barrow says:

      Feel the same but don’t give up. That’s why we have this site to discuss this and get things changed.

  22. E-Jungle says:

    Common sense just got more common :)

  23. Groanan says:

    This story is only news because of public outrage due to the McDonald’s coffee spill case.
    The coffee in that case was hot enough that, when touching the skin, would cause third-degree burns (the kind that need skin grafting) within seven seconds, and there was no reason for McDonald’s to serve coffee at that temperature.

    The woman in that case, as first, only asked McDonald’s to cover her medical bills, they refused, even though they had hundreds of similar incidents previously.

    What I see different between the McDonald’s case, and this Starbucks case, is not a more rational judge, but a difference in how hot the drink was. That a burn is alright, but a near instantaneous third-degree burn is not.

    Just because people like hot coffee doesn’t mean you should pour it boiling out of a pot into their cup.

    • redwall_hp says:

      Yeah, but the the media seriously misrepresented that case. Ask a few random people on the street about that case and I bet most would have no idea that the coffee was served at such an insane temperature. They would probably think it’s just a famous frivolous lawsuit to aspire to.

      • Scoobatz says:

        You’re absolutely correct. People consider the McDonald’s case a frivolous one because highly opinionated and very persuasive media sold it to us this way. Media outlets had every opportunity to correct the misunderstanding behind the actual events of that case, but chose sensationalism (once again) over good journalism.

      • Brunette Bookworm says:

        The coffee was too hot in that case but she was also partly to blame, if I remember correctly. Didn’t she put the coffee between her legs to put cream and sugar in it? Even if the coffee wasn’t overly hot, doing that risks some kind of burn, just not third-degree at normal coffee brewing temperatures.

      • FredKlein says:

        Ask a few random people on the street about that case and I bet most would have no idea that the coffee was served at such an insane temperature.

        There is nothing “insane” about the temp McDonalds had their coffee at. 185 is perfectly reasonable. It is the same temp they home coffee makers hold coffee at, the same temp the National Coffee Association recommends.

    • Nigerian prince looking for business partner says:

      I really wonder if the reason we see so many of these types of cases is because so many people lack insurance or the means to pay for medical bills. If you have good insurance and your kid breaks his arm on a swing set at school, you’d pay your $50 ER deductible and shrug it off as “kids being kids”. If you don’t have insurance, you’d have to deal with $3,000 worth of medical bills and suing the school would look like a good option.

      I could see the same thing happening at McDonalds. If you get a horrible burn from coffee, which requires $15,000 worth of ER care and can’t afford to pay for the care, the two options are to sue McDonalds or settle with the hospital, where the hospital then raises medical rates for everyone else.

    • FredKlein says:

      This story is only news because of public outrage due to the McDonald’s coffee spill case.
      The coffee in that case was hot enough that, when touching the skin, would cause third-degree burns (the kind that need skin grafting) within seven seconds, and there was no reason for McDonald’s to serve coffee at that temperature.

      ::sigh::

      McDonalds held their coffee at 185 degrees, right in line with other restaurants holding temps, and right in line with the National Coffee Association’s recommendations.

      The woman in that case, as first, only asked McDonald’s to cover her medical bills

      Incorrect. Her bills were $11,000, and she asked for $20,000, almost Twice that. Her demands went up to $90,000, then $300,000.

      they refused, even though they had hundreds of similar incidents previously.

      700 incidents, over 10 years, nationwide. That’s one burn (of any severity) for every 24,000,000 cups sold. In other words, for every idiot who burned themselves, 23,999,999 managed not to.

      Just because people like hot coffee doesn’t mean you should pour it boiling out of a pot into their cup.

      185 is not “boiling”, any more than a pleasant 59 degree spring day is the same as a freezing 32 degree winter day.

      • Groanan says:

        :::groan:::

        The National Coffee Association is not an authority on what temperature is reasonable when selling beverages to drivers.

        It does not matter what the standard practice is if the standard practice is unreasonable.

        $20k is a pittance (in light of the injury and the possibility of losing the lawsuit) and one never knows what future medical expenses will arise form an injury.

        No one sells boiling hot coffee (nor did I imply that anyone does), but 185 is TOO HOT TO DRINK – Drinking it at that temperature would burn your tongue and you have to wait and be careful until it cools down.

        The woman was found to be 20% responsible, and her award was decreased by that amount.
        It is of no consequence how few people are injured by something that is unnecessarily more dangerous than it needs to be. It is not like McDonalds is saving money by selling it hotter, or selling more because it is hotter. McDonalds knew that people were getting burned, and it kept selling the coffee as hot as it did for no good reason.

        • FredKlein says:

          The National Coffee Association is not an authority on what temperature is reasonable when selling beverages to drivers.

          You’re right. They are an organization that exists to promote their product- coffee. Please explain how they can do that by giving instructions for its preparation that are “unreasonable”.

          It does not matter what the standard practice is if the standard practice is unreasonable.

          It is not unreasonable. It’s simply how coffee is made. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liebeck_v._McDonald%27s_Restaurants and the references it cites.

          “Though defenders of the Liebeck verdict argue that her coffee was unusually hotter than other coffee sold, other major vendors of coffee, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, and Burger King, produce coffee at a similar or higher temperature…”

          “Home and commercial coffee makers often reach comparable temperatures.”

          “Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote a unanimous 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion affirming dismissal of a similar lawsuit against coffeemaker manufacturer Bunn-O-Matic. The opinion noted that hot coffee (179 °F (82 °C) in this case) is not “unreasonably dangerous.””

          etc.

          $20k is a pittance (in light of the injury and the possibility of losing the lawsuit) and one never knows what future medical expenses will arise form an injury.

          No one is arguing that. It was claimed that Stella “only” asked for enough to cover her (up to that point) bills. I showed this was not true.

          No one sells boiling hot coffee (nor did I imply that anyone does), but 185 is TOO HOT TO DRINK – Drinking it at that temperature would burn your tongue and you have to wait and be careful until it cools down.

          Look (and actually READ) the wiki article I referenced above, and the articles it cites. ALL restaraunts hold coffee at that temp. HOME coffee makers do it, too. The extremely small number of burns from this ‘TOO HOT TO DRINK HURR DURR’ coffee proves it is not unreasonable.

          It is of no consequence how few people are injured by something that is unnecessarily more dangerous than it needs to be.

          The miniscule number of people injured show it is NOT “unnecessarily more dangerous than it needs to be”.

          It is not like McDonalds is saving money by selling it hotter, or selling more because it is hotter.

          Actually… you see, some people like their coffee HOT. Other people like their coffee warm. The only way to satisfy both these groups is to serve it HOT, and the people who like it warm can wait for it to cool. If they serve it merely warm, then the people who like it HOT won’t buy it.

          McDonalds knew that people were getting burned, and it kept selling the coffee as hot as it did for no good reason.

          Correction: McDonalds knew that a statistically insignificant number of people (1/24,000,000) had burned themselves (under what conditions? What degree burn?), and so it kept preparing and serving the coffee the same way as everyone else who makes and serves coffee.

    • tacitus59 says:

      Thanks for mentioning this – I remember the whole McDonald’s mess and then I remember reading the full story behind it. As much as people mock the McD’s lawsuit – the actual story behind it is actually pretty rational. And the good result is now McD actually has decent fitting fairly substantial lids on their hot coffee.

  24. kc2gvx says:

    THREE CHEERS for a judge ruling with common sense!

  25. sweetgreenthing says:

    I worked for starbucks for two years, and the tea can be really hot. I’ve had blistering burns from the hot water splashing on me while getting someone a tea… The simple solution for me was- “This tea is very hot, I put a sleeve on it, but I would wait a few minutes to let it cool off before you drink it.”
    Not one person came back to me complaining they burnt the crap out of themselves.

    • LaurelHS says:

      But shouldn’t customers know the tea is hot anyway since the cup has a heat warning printed on it?

      • hawguy says:

        And shouldn’t customer know that hot tea is hot because it’s, well, hot? Does anyone expect their hot tea to not be hot? Unless, of course, they order iced tea.

  26. Eli the Ice Man says:

    Another victory for common sense!

  27. Hi_Hello says:

    they need to stop using cups… just have a trough were people and drink from.

    or make people bring their own cups.

  28. Fubish says: I don't know anything about it, but it seems to me... says:

    Another intelligent judge! There was a recent case in New Jersey where a kid’s parents sued NJ Transit for negligence because the kid broke a leg while skateboarding in a train station parking lot. The judge threw the case out – he said a railroad parking lot was not a skateboard park. Period. Yay!

  29. backinpgh says:

    90% of people add SOME kind of milk, sugar, honey, whatever to their tea. Certainly this lady did, in which case the lid thing is totally her own fault.

  30. jkinatl2 says:

    Enter text…Too bad the woman wasn’t fined for a frivolous lawsuit. Or her lawyer. Or both.

  31. Levk says:

    woot the judge deserves a Starbucks gift card!!

  32. suez says:

    PLUS, odds are she removed the lid in order to sweeten the hot tea, meaning SHE did not secure it properly.

  33. suez says:

    PLUS, odds are she removed the lid in order to sweeten the hot tea, meaning SHE did not secure it properly.

  34. JWBrockman says:

    I wish this would at least have been heard by a jury. I don’t understand the prevailing sentiment around cases like this. Who on earth benefits from products that are clearly intended for immediate consumption being sold in a state that will injure the customer if consumed? Maybe if businesses were afraid of being sued they would actually serve their products in a safe manner, and I could actually drink a coffee on the way to work instead of 45 minutes after I ordered it for once.

    • angienessyo says:

      Ask for them to put a little ice in your coffee or tea. Or for specialty drinks ask for them to be steamed at a lower temperature. Problem solved. I can’t stand very hot drinks so I get this done and all is well in the world.

  35. parv says:

    /me raises a cup of hot (near boiling point of water in case of hot tea) coffee/tea. *cheers*

  36. brianary says:

    To be fair, Starbuck’s does have a tendency to serve their tea undrinkably, scaldingly hot. Like, it’ll-be-20-minutes-before-you-can-drink-it hot.