Spill coffee, hit the jackpot?
A recent lawsuit filed by a North Carolina police officer burned by hot coffee echoes the famous story of Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants.
A North Carolina police officer is suing Starbucks for third degree burns and blisters he suffered after spilling a cup of hot coffee on himself. Lieutenant Matthew Kohr, who was working for the Raleigh Police Department’s Special Operations Division at the time of the incident, received a cup of coffee from the Peace Street Starbucks in January of 2012. In a lawsuit filed in March 2015, Kohr alleges that the lid of the cup popped off and the cup folded in on itself, allowing coffee to spill out and causing the burns and blisters. Kohr tried to soothe the burns by pouring water on them, but the pain only intensified.
In addition to the pain caused by the injuries themselves, Kohr claims that the severe burns aggravated his Crohn’s disease and required surgery to remove a part of his intestine. The lawsuit correspondingly requests damages for the injury causing Kohr’s wife a loss of emotional support, social companionship, and an intimate partner. Ultimately, Kohr is seeking damages against Starbucks totaling more than $10,000. In addition to the company being named in the lawsuit, the barista who prepared the coffee and the supervisor at the time of the incident were also named as defendants.
In its answer to the lawsuit, Starbucks stated that Kohr should have been more careful, and that safety warnings are printed on their cups. They also stated that the medical damages were not overwhelming, since Kohr healed within a few months of his surgery. Starbucks also disclosed that the coffee was given to Kohr for free and argued that it was his negligent use of the product that was the true cause of his injuries. Although this is the most recent hot coffee incident locally to date, this case is not unique in alleging damages resulting from severe injuries due to spilled hot coffee.
While some believe and continue to regard Liebeck as the epitome of a frivolous lawsuit, others view the case as holding corporate entities responsible for foreseeable dangerous incidents that can harm consumers.
Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants was the most notable hot coffee case to rock the fast food world. In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was in the passenger seat of her grandson’s car when she bought a coffee in a Styrofoam cup through a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the vehicle was parked, she put the coffee between her legs and the scorching hot coffee spilled onto her lap. She was wearing sweatpants at the time, but the coffee soaked into her pants resulting in serious injuries. The coffee Liebeck had purchased was later estimated to be somewhere between 180 to 190 degrees and approximately sixteen percent of her body was burned, with six percent of those burns being third-degree.
Liebeck filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s in 1993, claiming that the coffee she purchased was defective because of its excessive temperature and because of inadequate warnings from the company. At trial it was discovered that the company was aware of more than 700 claims that had been brought against it between 1982 and 1992 due to burns resulting from its coffee. The company’s stated reason for the policy of extremely hot coffee was because of recommendations from coffee consultants and industry groups which claimed that hot temperatures were necessary to fully extract the full coffee flavor during the brewing process. At the conclusion of the case, the jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages (which was subsequently reduced by the judge to $480,000 or three times the compensatory damages). However, a post-verdict settlement conference resulted in a confidential settlement between the parties.
While some believe and continue to regard Liebeck as the epitome of a frivolous lawsuit, others view the case as holding corporate entities responsible for foreseeable dangerous incidents that can harm consumers. However, recovering legal damages for injuries caused by hot coffee is not always as easy as the Liebeck case makes it seem.
In modern times, plaintiffs in North Carolina may successfully recover against companies for defective design and for failure to warn consumers about dangers that could arise from products.
In early American history, the policy of “caveat emptor” was the norm. The phrase translates as “buyer beware” and courts routinely held in product liability lawsuits that a manufacturer or retailer of a faulty product was not liable for injuries caused by use of the product and that the risk was on the consumer. However, American law progressed and courts began to permit plaintiffs to recover for injuries from the negligence of the manufacturer or retailer.
In modern times, plaintiffs in North Carolina may successfully recover against companies for defective design and for failure to warn consumers about dangers that could arise from products. A plaintiff in a products liability action can base a defect on inadequate warnings or instruction. The inadequate warning must have created an unreasonably dangerous condition that the manufacturer or seller knew or should have known posed a substantial risk of harm to buyers. A plaintiff also must prove that this defect was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.
Manufacturers and retailers will often utilize the defense of consumer misuse in product liability cases. Companies in product liability cases frequently argue that the consumer failed to use reasonable care in using the product. Manufacturers and retailers in North Carolina may not be held liable for the injuries of consumers if the use of the product was contrary to any express and adequate instructions or warnings on the product if the user knew or should have known of such warnings. North Carolina is different in this aspect of consumer negligence, because the state follows the legal theory of contributory negligence. Therefore, if the plaintiff is proved to be even one percent negligent for their injuries, they cannot recover damages from the manufacturer or retailer for product liability.
In product liability cases, the differences among states can be outcome determinative. It is especially relevant in hot coffee cases, where a distracted or rushed consumer can lose out on recovery quite easily. The jury in Liebeck found the plaintiff responsible for twenty percent of her injuries. That case was filed in New Mexico, which differs from North Carolina on negligence law. In that state, a partly responsible plaintiff may still recover against a manufacturer or retailer for damages under the theory of comparative negligence. In comparative negligence states, the award of damages will be reduced by the amount of fault attributed to the plaintiff; instead of the plaintiff being completely barred from recovery like in North Carolina. Ultimately, if that case had been filed in North Carolina, there would have been no recovery for Liebeck. Consequently, plaintiffs in North Carolina have a very difficult path in order to recover for product liability injuries.
As for Kohr’s lawsuit against Starbucks, the warning displayed on standard Starbucks coffee cups states: “Careful, the beverage you’re about to enjoy is extremely hot.” This warning label gives notice to consumers of the potential dangerous temperature of the beverage will likely be important evidence in this case. Whether Starbucks will be held liable for Kohr’s injuries or whether they can prove Kohr was negligent himself in causing his injuries will be a significantly litigated issue. Trial in the case is scheduled to begin in May 2015.