When Starbucks Dumps Scalding Hot Coffee On You, It's A PR Problem

When a Starbucks barista accidentally dumped scalding hot coffee all over Matt’s father, he got to see Starbuck’s crack PR response in action.

From SFWeekly:

Early last month my father, a retired Methodist pastor in Red Bluff, three hours north of San Francisco, ordered a cup of coffee for himself at Starbucks. Before Dad picked up the coffee, the barista bumped it off the counter. It spilled on the front of Dad’s pants, burning his crotch, then running down his legs and settling into his shoes.

Instead of running to get some ice, the barista grabbed a questionnaire.

“I don’t remember all the questions, because I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this burn?'” Dad recalls. “There was a man in the shop who was a male nurse. He came from where he was sitting and said, ‘I’ve been watching this, and I’m a nurse, and I must say to you, you must not fill out this form. You must take yourself to the bathroom and make sure you get some water on your foot.'”

The nervous employee persisted. “He said, ‘I’m almost done.’ I said I had to go to the bathroom and cool my foot,” Dad recalled.

The resulting burn was so bad that Dad had to go to the emergency room, get the welts on his foot treated, and take pain medication so strong he wasn’t supposed to drive for three weeks. His hospital visit and medicine cost around $500.

“I thought they’d call and say, ‘We heard you were injured, and we want to know what we can do in response to that, and these are our protocols, and we want to do what we can,'” Dad said.

Such a humane approach would apparently fall outside the guidelines of a secret corporate “program” Starbucks has in place to deal with scalding incidents.

Matt tried (unsuccessfully) to learn what procedures Starbucks has in place in case their bartista drops boiling water on your head. Turns out they do have them, but they’re a secret.

“Do we have a policy in place for responding? Yes, we do. We have a policy in place. I can’t really give you details,” Darrow said.

She said that scalding incidents do happen at Starbucks stores, but that it’s a secret how often.

Can’t you explain how you care for people who are scalded in your stores? I asked.

“No, because, first of all, we don’t give specifics on the program,” she said.

Did you just say “program?” I asked.

“Our scalding incident program,” Darrow said. “They have guidelines for how to respond. I’m not sharing those, because they are part of an internal practice.”

Matt’s dad got a $50 gift card for his troubles. Is that fair compensation for a serious burn? We don’t know, but we do find it a little strange that Starbucks is so hesitant to speak about their “scalding incident program.”

Accidents happen, Starbucks. What’s the big mystery? In any case, if a Starbucks barista accidentally throws a pot of coffee at you, don’t wait around for the questionnaire. It’s important to get cool running water or cold moist cloths on your burn as soon as possible. Don’t use ice or ice water, and don’t rely on Starbucks for first aid.

Burning Brew [SF Weekly] (Thanks, Scott!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    And just how much liability might Starbucks have for preventing a customer from doing elementary first aid on himself?

  2. Buran says:

    Yes, you always should cool a burn as soon as possible to stop your skin from basically cooking. Don’t wait. Use cold running water, I’d say for at least five minutes.

    That said, I wonder if there’s going to be a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. At least this guy wasn’t trying to carry his cup in a CAR.

  3. chimmike says:

    I like how you said accidents happen.

    Now if only the rest of the common sense universe could come to that conclusion instead of suing like idiots.

    But in this case, exactly what was the Barista thinking? If the burns actually did require serious medical attention, that’s serious negligence by the Starbucks employee and could lead to an easy win in a suit or claim filed against Starbucks for the negligence, not so much in the spilling, but in the response to the spill!

  4. m.ravian says:


    when i left the company in April, there wasn’t a “scalding incident program” that i knew of. and i was a supervisor.

    if i spilled hot anything on someone (which, by the way, was an extremely rare occurrance in my experience), the first thing out of my mouth was an offer of help. not a questionnaire.

    what a weird company. glad i jumped that sinking ship…

  5. foghat81 says:

    of course this happened in SF. freakin hippies

  6. 2Legit2Quit says:

    I work as a Barista at Seattle’s Best Coffee (the better half of Starbucks), and it’s basically the only ting we’re instructed to do in an emergency. They have to fill out an accident report form, and that’s it. Make sure they do that.

    Thankfully, I’m also a lifeguard, and I’m not about to possibly ruin another persons life by worrying about an accident report form until the persons okay.

    I’m sure what happened is the barista just freaked and had no clue what to do.

  7. BrockBrockman says:


    This whole debacle just oozes Starbucks slime. I bet the “program” forgot to mention a first, very common sense step: let the burnt customer take care of him/herself first, see if they need immediate medical attention, then callously bombard them with a questionnaire.

    Just shows you where their priorities lie: not with customer safety, but shareholder safety.

    There should be a lawsuit. My sleazy consumer-attorney spidey-sense is tingling.

  8. Shadowman615 says:

    That’s when you, the customer, take charge and tell the Barista to get the hell away with the survey before you knock his (or her) teeth out.

  9. Wormfather says:

    @chimmike: If Starbucks doesnt pay his medical bills then a law suit is not only inevitable, it’s also justified.

    Accidents happen, but when they’re your fault you have to pay for the consequences of said action.

  10. liquisoft says:

    I’m not saying they should sue Starbucks, but they should certainly demand medical compensation. They burned the guy, and so they should pay for his medical bills (at the very least).

    A $50 gift card is a kick in the burned, painful crotch. “Here’s more money so you can get burned again by our clumsy employees.”

    Not cool.

  11. timmus says:

    “Our scalding incident program,” Darrow said. “They have guidelines for how to respond. I’m not sharing those, because they are part of an internal practice.”

    Yeah, right… so the baristas have signed a nondisclosure agreement or something?

  12. In what universe does it make sense to go at someone with a questionnaire after burning them? How does it make sense to prevent someone from getting help with an injury?

    What’s he expect to end up on the questionnaire? “Yes, I enjoy the sensation of my crotch burning?”

  13. Uh I’m sorry, how could a full-grown man be prevented from going to nurse his foot by a teenager with a questionnaire?

    Sounds like this Methodist pastor need to grow a pair.

  14. Anonymous says:

    And by “crack” you mean, “caffeine”, right?

  15. TedSez says:

    Question 1: You touched the cup first, right?

    Question 2: No, really, it was you who knocked over the cup, wasn’t it? Because it certainly wasn’t any employee of the Starbucks corporation.

    Question 3: Do you agree that you’re not in that much pain? You can scream the answer.

    Question 4: Do you want some cold water and to absolve Starbucks of any blame in this matter?

    Question 5: Would you like me to call 911 for emergency treatment of your delusional burn?

    Question 6: Sign right here, where it says “I’ve never been to Starbucks,” and you’re free to go.

  16. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @Pope John Peeps II: I’d imagine that his pair, having just been scalded, was temporarily out of commission.

  17. not_seth_brundle says:

    @TedSez: Awesome.

  18. erica.blog says:

    @TedSez: Yes, I’m curious about what the (real) questions were…

  19. queen_elvis says:

    When I was a waitress and something got spilled, the policy was solve the problem first and deal with the bureaucracy aspect later. If for no other reason than to avoid further liability for slips and falls!

    The person who suggested that Red Bluff, CA is full of San Francisco hippies needs a map and a better joke.

  20. papa_panda says:

    First of all, fire the barista. He should be able to respond in an emergency like that.

    Second of all, pay his medical bills.

    But everything starts at home. The pastor shouldn’t have waited to answer the questions. I usually order hot tea at starbucks, and if I ever spilled any on me, (or if any employee spilled tea on me) I would make sure FIRST AND FOREMOST that I run water over my burns.

    Exactly right about the gift card. It’s like if you went to six flags and fell off a roller coaster and for compensation they gave you free tickets to ride all the rides.

  21. Little Miss Moneybags says:

    Weird. I also worked at Starbucks and never heard of this program. I don’t think anyone in my store was ever burned badly enough to warrant medical attention–aside from those of us working behind the counter, that is. During training, we were taught how to use the accident report (which is pretty common in any chain restaurant, so they have a record of what happened soon afterward). This was a stupid decision made by a scared barista who doesn’t know anything about first aid.

    It would be cheaper for Starbucks to cover the medical costs than get sued, especially since another customer stepped in and might be willing to testify.

    As an aside, anyone else think it’s interesting that the customer who offered medical help HAD to be called a “male nurse”?

  22. gibsonic says:

    one of my wife’s friends works at starbucks and is a newspaper reporter…i smell a story brewing…(pun intended)

  23. JayXJ says:

    As far as not discussing thier policy…that’s pretty standard. I would think it’s a defense against friviouls lawsuits. The idea being that people trying to stage an incident can’t set it up specifically to the flaws in your policy.

  24. lightaugust says:

    Yes. Exactly. Spilled coffee happened in SF because we’re all hippies. It’s actually because gravity works better here. But that’s a part of our secret program.

  25. Fuzz says:

    Was his foot as burnt as their coffee?

    I kid, I kid. :)

  26. Mary says:

    Accident reports are a pretty important part of corporate policies. I was told frequently, at almost every job I’ve had, to fill out a report for anything out of the ordinary. Heck, I had to fill out a report when I slipped on the ice on a work errand in another county, because they needed a record if I filed for Worker’s Compensation.

    The barrista had to have freaked out, I can’t come up with any other conclusion. They freaked and the only thing their brain latched onto was “accident report.”

    Starbucks should pay his medical bills. It’s only good business, forget the gift card. $500 in medical bills does not equal $50 gift card. 10% is not appropriate compensation for even an accident.

  27. Kurtz says:

    @foghat81: No, it happened in Red Bluff, three hours north of San Francisco. RTFA, moron.

  28. foghat81 says:

    @Kurtz: I apologize my joke wasn’t 100% factually accurate. Forgiveness please.

    [I did read the article, but after reading it and all the comments, “SFWeekly” is what stuck in my head.]

  29. kidgenius says:

    Look, the barista can’t help and shouldn’t help. What if he gave the guy incorrect medical advice? Now, Starbucks is on the hook for any further injuries caused. Filling out an accident form is the only thing they should do at the time of the accident. Let corporate handle the rest.

    And I know what some of you are thinking, “every retard knows to put running water on a burn”. Well, what if someone didn’t know, and instead told the guy to put some butter on it….which was commonly accepted not that long ago.

  30. savvy9999 says:

    No, did someone just say buttered boiled pastor? mmmm-hmmmmm!

  31. SBR249 says:

    @kidgenius: In this case it’s rather hard not to use some common sense and give good advice. Unless the barista suggested pouring more coffee on the victim to soothe the pain.

    On the other hand there are good samaritan laws that will protect a person for trying to help another person during a medical emergency, within reason of course.

  32. ncboxer says:

    Shouldn’t a barista of all people know how to deal with burns? Saying that they might not know might work for the common person, but these people deal with hot liquids all the time. If the person truly didn’t know, than Starbucks is incompetent for not teaching them.

  33. mcjake says:

    So did Starbucks pay for the medical treatment? I am the ONLY person in my family who is not an insurance underwriter and I guarantee you that every single Starbucks store has a liability policy that covers everything from customers slipping in the bathroom to having scalding hot coffee dumped all over you. The poor doofus employee that spilt the coffee was probably filling out the paperwork that Starbucks needs to fill out when a customer gets injured. Unfortunately he didn’t have the sense to wait and make sure the injured customer was taken care of first.

    If they paid your medical bills then I would say it’s time to say thank you for $50 worth of coffee and to take the money and run. And well, if they didn’t you’re going to need that coffee to keep you energized while you get on the phone with your lawyer so that they can write an official letter saying “Yo Starbucks, pay up bitches!”

  34. BII says:

    @Rectilinear Propagation:

    IIRC, whenever an injury (customer, employee, vendor, etc) happens, the supervisor on duty fills out an “incident report.”

    its not a “questionnare,” but it does have questions regarding the injury, like any report does.

    it gets sent to Seattle and who knows what happens from there. The empire never really told us at the retail level anything. I’m sure this hasn’t changed since I left a few years ago.

  35. BII says:


    Too bad Starbucks employees are mere button pushers and not real baristas. ;)

  36. nursetim says:

    Even if the barista knew nothing about first aid, calling 911 would be appropriate.

    As a male nurse, I agree with you.

  37. ekthesy says:

    If the coffee served at Starbucks is going to cause such burns to my naughty-bits and feet, what the hell is going to happen when said contents exit the cup and enter my mouth?

  38. dasunst3r says:

    Grabbing a questionnaire instead of ice? You gotta be kidding me!

  39. shfd739 says:

    Um it couldnt have been that bad of a burn if his total medical exspenses are only $500. Around here that same thing would give an er bill of $750 plus. Ive spilled hot fresh coffee on myself by accident and I never found it that hot. This world is becoming of full of pansies.

    Cmon Starbucks pay his little medical bill and maybe $100 worth of coffee drinks and tell him to go away.

  40. Yankees368 says:

    Who told you to put the balm on?

  41. xamarshahx says:

    This is what happens when retards sue corporations and win $1,000,000 (ie. McDonalds), they become absolutely paranoid. When I was at Best Buy they also had a survey and procedures to follow. Of course, first was call 911 if its an injury, then keep your mouth shut about how bad it looks, and then the questions would come. Of course I can see how those policies could get some teen all flustered about losing his job and make them less caring of the situation and more worried about following policy.

  42. hoo_foot says:

    I don’t blame Starbucks for not releasing details of their “scalding incident program”. I guarantee that if it were made public, the number of scalding incidents in Starbucks would skyrocket the next day from people trying to cash in on frivolous lawsuits.

  43. 2Legit2Quit says:


    … button pushers? Sorry oh great one, teach me the ways of the true barista. We have to steam, grind, and struggle just as any other coffee shop must.

    “First of all, fire the barista. He should be able to respond in an emergency like that.”

    Why SHOULD he have? Training doesn’t include first aid? Not to mention, I’d have to see the $500 medical, cause the coffee is NOT that hot. Shit, I get burned by the espresso machine and oven on a daily basis, and the worst left is nothing.

  44. 2Legit2Quit says:


    The McDonalds lawsuit was legit, considering that the store wasn’t following proper temperature regulations, despite being warned numerous times.

  45. j_dot says:

    I love that they called him a male nurse. gaylord focker would be so proud.

  46. BrockBrockman says:

    @xamarshahx / MaxPayne3476: Oh noes … not the McDonald’s scalding coffee lawsuit thing again …

  47. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @shfd739: Maybe that was after insurance, or maybe the prescription was just really expensive.

  48. Craig says:

    A few years ago a cup of coffee was spilled on my 5-year-old daughter’s arm at a Starbucks thanks to an extremely wobbly table and unusually hot coffee. (I burned my hand brushing it off my daughter’s arm.) A Starbucks employee brought us some kind of burn pack and another customer reminded us to get it under cold water and we rushed off to the local urgent care as quickly as possible. A few weeks later she was fine.

    Could I have sued? I don’t really care…it’s not my style and there was no permanent physical damage done. I probably should have followed up and told them I wouldn’t sue if they fixed the table, so at least it wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

  49. robertseaton says:

    This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode wherein Kramer settles for all the free Lates he can drink.

    But seriously…if I can’t afford to make my sub-prime mortgage payments because Starbucks has to raise the price of my Mocha in order to settle your lawsuit…I am coming after you.

  50. Interested in accidents and civil suits? Here is a site that has loads of info on personal injury law for stores and businesses just highlight and paste the link:


    Here is a site that has information on the Top Secret Security/Loss Prevention policies for Target Department Stores. It is so SECRET that the person who posted it is being sued in Federal Court:


  51. Here is a site that has loads of info on personal injury law for stores and businesses:


    Here is a site that has information on the Security/Loss Prevention policies for Target Department Stores:


  52. SadSam says:

    Whose is responsible if you buy a scalding cup of coffee and then spill it on yourself while standing at a Starbucks counter. Is it your responsiblity or is it Starbucks responsibility. Accidents do happen, if this guy’s medical costs were completely covered by insurance should he be entitled to additional damages. If you are seeking super hot coffee beverages have you not assumed some level of risk for super hot coffee beverage related injuries?

  53. MikeB says:

    @shfd739: It was probably more, but insurance would have covered it. And since it says he is retired, Medicare or is it Medicad, one of them.

    Question 4: Do you want some cold water and to absolve Starbucks of any blame in this matter?

    You forgot a step.

    If yes, that will be $2.50 plus tax

  54. lizzybee says:

    @SadSam: Reading is fundamental… If STARBUCKS employees spill coffee on you, Starbucks is responsible.

  55. Smashville says:

    @SadSam: If I buy a cup of coffee, part of
    the implied purchase is that the barista serve me the coffee and cup
    together. Not spill it on me. How is it the guys fault that someone
    else spilled coffee on me? If I buy a car, and the dealer is pulling it
    around and runs my kid over, am I at fault because I bought the car?

  56. ChaosMotor says:

    Accidents happen, but if the accident is the fault of an employee, it is the employer who needs to foot the medical bills. If companies are entities, they are responsible for the actions of all their constituent members. The company is out to make a profit, the guy is just trying to live his life. There’s no reason to make him pay for the company’s mistakes.

  57. nctrnlboy says:

    OH BOY! I just HAVE to know now what this secretive “scalding incident program” entails! lol

    A disguntled higher-up in starbucks needs to anonymously shed some light on this!!!!

    I am dying to know!

  58. crankymediaguy says:

    I’m SO sick of someone always bringing up the McDonalds coffee scalding incident as an alleged example of frivolous lawsuits.

    The victim in that case suffered third-degree (the worst kind) burns on her genital area, THROUGH HER CLOTHING. That’s how hot the coffee was. IIRC, she had to have skin grafts.

    Yes, accidents happen. We all know that. No one ever alleged that this was done to her on purpose, just that, by accident, she was sold coffee that was MUCH too hot, which had a loose lid on its cup, and which spilled and caused her much pain and injury.

    It was NOT a frivolous lawsuit and she did not become a millionaire because of it.

    If this happened to you, or your wife, would YOU not sue to get restitution?

  59. 3ZKL says:

    a 50$ gift card is only going to buy about three frozen frappajappas anyway. . .

  60. King of the Wild Frontier says:

    @crankymediaguy: Indeed. The McDonald’s lady had her hoo-hah burned off–because Mickey D’s keeps its coffee too hot to drink when it’s served so that people won’t stay around long enough to get a refill–and initially she asked for just enough to cover her medical bills, and McDonald’s laughed at her.

    I’d chalk this one up to an incompetent barista. I suffered a similar mishap at a Starbucks some months ago, and the dude waited until I’d washed the coffee off my tie and shoes (only got a little on my clothes, no burns) and stuffed a fistful of free drink coupons in my hand. No form to fill out. I might have been peeved if it had been at the beginning of the work day instead of at the end, but I was pretty pleased that they did more than just replace the spilled coffee.

  61. miborovsky says:

    Uh, now’s the guy’s chance to sue Starbucks for 500 bajigazillion dollars.

  62. daveinFL says:

    >BY PAPA_PANDA AT 08/20/07 02:06 PM


    >First of all, fire the barista. He should be able to respond in an emergency like that.

    It is amazing sometimes what is expected of $7 an hour employees fresh out of high school. How is it the Batista’s fault if the corporation never trained him to do all this or to know exactly what to do other than shove a questionaire in his face, if this is indeed all that the training consisted of?

  63. E-Bell says:

    This guy has a legitimate claim, unlike Stella Liebeck, due to the negligence of the barista.

    The fact is, the McDonald’s coffee was NOT unreasonably hot. The lid was NOT loose. The McDonald’s employee did NOT spill it on her.

    It was brewed and served within the industry-standard temperature range, and establishments like Starbuck’s and Dunkin’ Donuts still serve coffee that hot today.

    Stella’s wounds were so severe because the sweatpants she wore held the coffee against her skin for a sufficiently long time to burn her.

    It never should have been presented to a jury, and most courts who have heard similar cases have correctly thrown them out.

  64. snowferret says:

    I hate the way companies give out gift cards to respond to problems. I went to a restaurant and complained once, everything was terrible. Food, Service, you name it. They sent me a 10 dollar coupon. The food and service sucks, why would I want to eat there again?

  65. Four Words For You (ignore the “and”):

    Claims Court and Civil Suit.

  66. mzlinax3 says:

    Wow. I am utterly shocked that such a program exists. I have been working for Starbucks for about two years and virtually have the experience of someone who has been a part of the company for much longer and I have NEVER heard of such a policy and it is ABSOLUTELY ridiculous. We just had a fellow barista actually spill hot coffee on a customer’s hand and the first thing that anyone did was get the customer to the bathroom to rush his hand with cold water. Also, the burn kit was received and the customer’s hand was wrapped to aid. The customer’s satisfaction with the first aid received was the first thing that we worried about. However, there is an accident report that we are required to complete in such occasions but often times we don’t even need the customer present to fill it out. It’s a common sense form that asks who/what/when/where/etc. I’ve burned my hand on the coffee that we have MULTIPLE times as wells as with the hot water used for Americanos which measures at about 200 degrees and I am sure that many other partners have as well. If such a program did in fact exist I’m sure that everyone would have been trained on it and in my 2 years, I have yet to even hear of a “Scalding Incident Program.”

  67. avantartist says:

    i’ve dumped starbucks coffee on myself more times than i’d like to admit. i think they brew their coffee too hot, i can hardly hold a cup even with the cup sleeve. the lids pose another issue… coffee is intended to be sipped not poured into your mouth through a little hole.

    now i order all my coffee with a few cubes of ice to cool it down.

    i could rant about this subject for a while.

  68. CoffeeAddict says:

    Starbucks coffee is hot and I would imagine to be burnt by such would be terrible. I am surprised that starbucks did not try to make a better effort to resolve this issue with Matt’s father. I have worked at starbucks in the past and although I never had a customer ever sustain a burn I would have stopped what I was doing to help the customer no matter how busy the store was. I think starbucks as well as other companies that sell hot drinks need to take more care when it comes to customers who are burnt due to the negligence of their employees.

  69. David Millar says:

    I read this article the first time from another source (I forget where) and was dumbfounded at how many people were retarded enough to say “He shouldn’t have spilled coffee on himself lol I am so smart”. I think a basic human reaction to someone getting hurt this way should be helping them. Is it just me, or do I sense a severe case of ‘the dreadful dumb’?

  70. summersun says:

    to you nay-sayers, starbucks drip coffee is about 180 degrees and is certainly hot enough to cause serious burns. a little while back, a barista at starbucks accidentally spilled my coffee on me (i never even touched the cup… as the barista reached across the counter to give it to me, the cup hit one of the CD cases on the counter and went flying all over me) and i ended up with second degree burns on my hip and girly parts. i spent 3 hours in the ER and BELIEVE ME, that coffee is DEFINITELY hot enough to burn someone, cause a great deal of pain, and leave scars. i feel for the people in this article, and i attest to the fact that all starbucks does is offer you a goddamn $50 gift card (for what it’s worth, i didn’t fill out the incident report until after i was released from the ER… they wanted me to sign it on my way out, but i told them that my burning skin was of slightly higher priority…). i’ve tried following up with starbucks about my medical bills and they have yet to return my calls, saying that someone on the ‘risk management team’ will contact me within 24 hours (they told me that over 1 week ago!). needless to say, i’m speaking with an attorney. they couldn’t care less that they burned me (or the guy in the article). i know that it was just an accident (i’m not upset with the barista or that store’s manager… accidents happen) and i’m ok with that: i’m not ok with the scars that i’ll have for the rest of my life and the amount of pain i’ve endured.