May 7th, 2010

The Media’s Failure in the Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit

To call this a media failure would be an understatement: The story of the woman scalded by Starbucks tea was reported in dozens of  news venues, both online and traditional. And when I wrote about it yesterday I noted that a little thing called “facts” just happened to be missing.

And do you know why the facts were missing? Because there weren’t any interviews with the complainant or her attorney.

When I say no interviews, I mean none. Nada. Zip. Bupkus. The first interview with the victim’s lawyer regarding this suit, which went international because this was a Reuters story, was the one I did yesterday. How pathetic is that?

This posting isn’t really about the suit, some of whose details you can now read at my prior post linked above; it’s about media incompetence.

According to  Elise Langsam, attorney for the burned victim, she received a phone call from Reuters, but she wasn’t available when the call came in. And before she even had a chance to get back to the reporter to discuss the actual case, it was already published.

The writer on the piece is identified as Jonathan Stempel and the editor is Bernard Orr. Apparently neither of them thought the facts would be important  to their fast-moving story of a woman being burned. Had they actually given a damn about their story, they would have learned that the cup’s top popped off because it wasn’t put on right by Starbucks, and that the scald on her arm left her hospitalized for five days. Instead, they relied on a bare bones Complaint that put Starbucks on notice of the suit, but doesn’t get into detail.

Reuters simply published a snippet from a modest legal filing, and then regurgitated the story of Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s coffee. As if all burn cases from chain restaurants are exactly the same. That’s journalism today? This is all of the meat and potatoes from their version of the story:

Starbucks Corp has been sued by a customer who allegedly suffered second-degree burns after being served tea that was too hot.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff Zeynep Inanli was served tea that was “unreasonably hot, in containers which were not safe,” at a Starbucks store at 685 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

As a result of Starbucks’ negligence, the plaintiff suffered “great physical pain and mental anguish,” including the burns, the complaint said.

You want to know what their excuse was for not finding out the actual facts? Here it is:

Starbucks, based in Seattle, did not immediately return requests for comment. The plaintiff’s lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment.

Clearly, this was a critical,  time-sensitive story that had to be published immediately. They must have been sitting there terrified that they might get out-scooped, while an environmental disaster looms in the waters to our south, while we fight two wars, while the world waits to see if Greece will go belly-up and while our economy struggles.

Does Reuters actually give a damn about what they produce, even when their writers don’t? Or is it just enough that they produce media filler, and leave actual journalism to others?

When I saw the piece I couldn’t believe such miserably lazy reporting passed for news, but when I Googled it I was stunned at the number of major news organizations that decided to run with it. What follows now are some of the media victims of the Reuters incompetence, both here and abroad. But they share the blame for publishing the Reuters piece without first  reading it to see if it was worth anything. The fact that facts were missing should have been evident to even a casual observer:

Sometimes people wonder if bloggers should be called journalists. But this blogger wonders if certain journalists should be called journalists.

File this under epic media fail.


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