New York Personal Injury Law Blog » McDonald's Hot Coffee Case, Personal Injury, Uncategorized


May 6th, 2010

Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit: Merit or Not?

The case popped up yesterday when it was reported in Reuters: Suit was brought against Starbucks because a woman was scalded by tea. With no  facts other than the bare bones Complaint, the writer then jumped in to discuss the Stella Liebeck McDonalds coffee case.

Once in the hands of Reuters, it went to the Gothamist. If you Google Starbucks hot tea case now you will see no shortage of stories on it, including HuffPo, CBS and the UK’s Telegraph. The story has gone international.

Ted Frank picked it up at Overlaywered. Frank, however, cautiously withheld his opinion because the Reuters article “fails to indicate sufficient facts to determine whether [plaintiff’s] scenario reflects injuries from a spill that was her own fault or the fault of Starbucks.” David Lat mocked it at Above the Law, asking  of Frank, “Where’s the outrage?”

Facts, facts, facts. That’s what makes and breaks lawsuits.

So I called plaintiff’s counsel, Elise Langsam. She’s been practicing 30+ years and has handled her share of scalding cases, often from showers where the landlord failed to set the water temperature controls properly. I wanted to know what actually happened with the Starbucks tea.

Here’s the deal. The plaintiff is Zeynap Inanli, a pro tennis player. Pro athletes aren’t generally the type of people that trip over their own two feet. And she didn’t.

The tea was bought at Starbucks near Grand Central Station on Lexington Third Avenue. The barista — coffee house devotees love that pretentious name for a counterperson — put the lid on, but didn’t put it on tight.  As Inanli walked with the tea, that lid popped off and Inanli’s arm was scalded with the contents.

Inanli was admitted to the Weil Cornell Burn Unit for five days as a result.

Combine unsecured lid with the fact that the tea was so hot it caused second degree burns to the arm of the tennis player, and you have the elements of an action. So, two simple facts are at play: The failure to secure the lid and the scalding temperatures.

As Langsam told me, “You don’t put molten lava in a cup with a loose lid.”

Will Starbucks say otherwise when they answer the lawsuit and ramp up the press machine? I would expect so. That’s what defense lawyers and press flacks are paid to do. So one day, assuming that Starbucks has a competing set of facts, it will get presented to a jury who will look the witnesses in the eye and try to determine fault. Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe a little bit of both. What will the result be? I don’t know, I didn’t see it happen and I won’t be on the jury.

But is this the making of an article in Reuters and a growing news story? I wouldn’t think so. The unsecured lid seems like run-of-the-mill negligence. The scalding hot tea might be a local store problem, or a company-wide problem, but only time (and discovery) will tell with that. If it’s a company-wide problem with plenty of past complaints, then maybe there is news. But I don’t see it yet. [Addendum: Here is a particularly moronic report from Lisa Mateo at WPIX in New York, who did man-in-the-street interviews without bothering to find out how the incident happened. That’s journalism?]

All in all, seems like a painful problem for the plaintiff, but most likely a rather simple fact pattern. The complaint is here:Inanli-v-Starbucks-Complaint

Update:  The Media’s Failure in the Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit

6 thoughts on “Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit: Merit or Not?

  1. Eric, it seems you have forgotten the Everyone Else’s Case Is Frivolous doctrine. You see, if this had happened to me, it would be a travesty, and it would be blatantly obvious that Starbucks is responsible when its employees fail to properly prepare knowingly-dangerous products sold for profit.

    But this did not happen to me, it happened to someone else, so the case is frivolous.

    Moreover, this case violates the Oversimplified Zinger rule. I can misleadingly describe the case as someone claiming they were burned by spilling an ordinary cup of coffee on themselves (zing!), and so relief is not available.

    Black letter law, Eric.

    • But this did not happen to me, it happened to someone else, so the case is frivolous.

      Yep. That’s the way it always goes. It’s amazing how many “reformers” see the light when they’ve been injured by the negligence of another.

      Cases like this make the news, not because they are more important to society than other matters, but because they are easy for people to quickly form opinions on. Facts be damned.

  2. Personal responsibility??? Where is it? Why didn’t she check the lid herself? And as for defense attorney’s I don’t see them advertising 24/7 to make claims that border on the absurd..

    • Personal responsibility??? Where is it?

      Doesn’t personal responsibility pertain to Starbucks also? Or is it OK to needlessly endanger the public?

      I have every expectation that the defense would be as you say…that the customers should double check everything the counterperson does. The same way all people routinely check every piece of food that they buy at a restaurant before consuming it.

      My best guess, by the way, is that the top appeared to be on, but hadn’t actually snapped into place.

      Now here’s the more important question: Why didn’t Reuters and the other media outlets bother to give the actual facts, and leave the impression that this was just like the McDonald’s case?

      One day, I suspect, a jury will get to hear the evidence, from both sides, and make a rational decision.