Corporate Coffee: A daunting, yet avoidable, danger.

One woman’s tragic coffee spill resulted in severe burns to her midsection and a lawsuit against Starbucks.

Starbucks describes the Pike Place Roast, their “signature medium-roasted” coffee, as “smooth, balanced and rich…the perfect everyday coffee in a cup.” As Florida-resident Joanne Mogavero had the misfortune to discover, though the coffee may be perfect in a cup, it is not so perfect in your lap.

Joanne, a mother of three, pulled in to a Starbucks drive-thru in Jacksonville, Florida and ordered a venti coffee, oblivious to the tragedy that would soon strike. When Joanna reached for the coffee as the barista handed it to her through her drivers’ side window, the lid popped off the cup, sending 20 ounces of 190-degree medium roast coffee plummeting into her lap (sources are unclear as to whether Joanne specified this temperature in her order, or if it is simply company protocol). The incident left Joanne permanently scarred, as she suffered first and second-degree burns on her midsection. In an attempt to recover from her injuries, Joanne filed a lawsuit against Starbucks.

Starbucks…receives “80 complaints a month” about issues with lids popping off or leaking, but the company argues that it “would not be relevant to warn customers of the risk.”

The crux of Joanne’s claim is that Starbucks’ negligence in “failing to adequately fasten the lid” directly caused her monetary and physical damages. Representing Joanne in the suit was Florida attorney Steve Earle, not to be confused with the country singer behind “Copperhead Road” and father of folk-singer Justin Townes Earle. In a suggestion on how to solve the issue, Earle argued that Starbucks should warn customers of the lids’ “propensity to pop off.” At trial, a representative from Starbucks testified that the company receives “80 complaints a month” about issues with lids popping off or leaking, but the company argues it “would not be relevant to warn customers of the risk.”

The jury found that Starbucks was 80 percent at fault and awarded Joanne $15,492 for medical bills, plus $85,000 for pain and suffering, physical impairment, disfigurement, inconvenience, and loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, totaling over $100,000. This may seem like a lot of money for a simple mistake, but with watered-down espresso drinks going for $10 a pop, Starbucks should be able to offset the damages quicker than you can say “pumpkin spice latte.” The bill may not be final yet, as Starbucks is considering an appeal of the decision and maintains that their employees “did nothing wrong.”

The situation at hand may seem eerily familiar. The feeling of deja vu can most likely be attributed to the similarities between this case and the famous 1994 lawsuit, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants  (or, alternatively, to an episode of Seinfeld). In the Liebeck case, commonly referred to as the “hot coffee case,” a woman sued McDonalds in a products liability suit. Ms. Liebeck suffered third-degree burns to her pelvic region after she accidently spilled a cup of drive-thru McDonald’s coffee in her lap. Ms. Liebeck’s injuries were so severe that she was hospitalized for 8 days, receiving multiple skin grafts. At trial, it was discovered that McDonald’s had “received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third degree burns” and that “McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.”  Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict for Ms. Lieback in the amount of $2.9 million.

The window-to-window, store-to-car transaction is riddled with unavoidable hazard.

As the country seemingly faces a slowly developing coffee burn epidemic, there exists a great need for a solution. Luckily, a similar peril as that faced by Ms. Mogavero and Ms. Liebeck can be avoided through a few precautionary measures.

There is one glaring common denominator: both women received their coffee in a drive-thru line. The window-to-window, store-to-car transaction is riddled with unavoidable hazard. Unlike McDonald’s and Starbucks, small, locally owned coffee shops usually do not have drive-thru windows. When buying coffee from such locations, one can avoid the danger of spilling hot coffee in their lap by actually going in to the store and carrying the drink straight from the counter to a table, rather than trying to put it in a car cup holder or seat.

Also in both cases, the coffee was served in paper or Styrofoam to-go cups.  The flexibility and fragility of these types of beverage containers most certainly increase the danger of a spill or leak. As another benefit of drinking small and local, those coffee shops will likely have real, ceramic coffee mugs, just like grandma used to have. Though they may not be as convenient as the to-go version, you don’t have to worry about the lid coming off of these cups, because they don’t have lids! If you still prefer your cup-a-joe to-go, your neighborhood coffee shop likely provides that option, and because they have a smaller customer-base, the baristas will likely have more time to devote to securely fastening the lid. Better yet, you could bring your own personalized or kitschy-phrase adorned ceramic tumbler. This would not only cut your chances at being burned from a coffee lid malfunction, but it will also save trees, and being eco-friendly is totally in right now.

The added stability of a chair, table, and real coffee mug also comes with the added benefit of human interaction. By opting to sit and enjoy a hand roasted, small batch coffee inside of your local café of choice, one is opening oneself up to meeting new people, engaging in casual conversation, and building a network with other risk-averse coffee connoisseurs.

Another way to avoid being burned by piping-hot coffee is to order iced coffee. I know what you’re thinking, what about during the winter? But, as Dunkin Donuts recently reported, studies show that “eighty-four percent (84%) of respondents say that they are drinking more iced coffee this winter than last winter.” As an additional bonus, “more than half of respondents (55%) say that they feel cooler and trendier by holding a cup of iced coffee.” Winter-time iced coffee drinkers have even started their own hashtag, “#icedcoffeeallyear,” in efforts to normalize their behavior and end the stigma surrounding cold weather cold brews.

“The End,” a Brooklyn café, filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Starbucks in May, which USA Today has referred to as “a legal war of the unicorns.”

It is common knowledge that every prescription comes with some undesirable side effects, and this is no exception. By avoiding corporate coffee distributers, such as Starbucks, one’s Instagram “likes” may take a significant blow, as there will be less opportunity for staged and artsy photographs of the green-logoed paper cups. There will, in turn, be less occasion to show off one’s superior uniquity when the Starbucks cashier just cannot manage to get the unconventional spelling of one’s name right on the side of your cup. These admittedly harsh drawbacks are still outweighed by the benefits of practicing proper coffee safety, as the injuries suffered by Ms. Liebeck and Ms. Mogavero are life altering.

Alas, the coffee chain has not seen the last of the legal battlefield. “The End,” a Brooklyn café, filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Starbucks in May, which USA Today has referred to as “a legal war of the unicorns.” In April of this year, Starbucks launched the “Unicorn Frappuccino,” a “flavor-changing, color-changing” frozen drink topped with “blue fairy powders,” which was only offered for a few days. The End Brooklyn has a similar drink on their menu, the “Unicorn Latte.” They have been selling the drink since December of 2016 and have a pending patent application for the name. The café claims in their suit, “the size of and scope of Starbucks’ product launch was designed so that the Unicorn Frappuccino would eclipse the Unicorn Latte in the market.”

Though the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino is free of coffee and does not pose the same threat of injury as its steamy counterpart, the Pike Place Blend, it is not free of legal contention. If, despite the lawsuits and potential hazards, one just cannot manage to wean oneself from the corporate claws of Starbucks and their extra-hot coffee served with ill-fitting lids, then do so at one’s own peril. After all, the risk could be worth it, as country mega-star Toby Keith once said, “spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars.”

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About Cydney Joyner (15 Articles)
Cydney Joyner is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Winston-Salem, NC. She attended undergrad at Salem College, a women's college in Winston-Salem, where she studied Political Science, International Relations, and Religion. During the summer following her first year of law school, she worked at the Buncombe County District Attorney's Office in Asheville, NC. Her legal interests are criminal law, international law, and constitutional law. This summer Cydney is interning at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of NC in Asheville.