Starbucks is Found Liable for Yet Another Hot Coffee Case

A Jacksonville, FL jury has ordered Starbucks to pay $100,000 to Joanne Mogavero after Mogavero was burned by their coffee. In 2014, Mogavero purchased a 20 ounce Venti cup of coffee through the local Starbucks drive-through. After the cashier handed Mogavero the cup to her, the lid popped off as Mogavero was about to pass the cup to her son. The coffee spilled out and Mogavero was covered in 190 degree coffee. Mogavero visited a plastic surgeon to treat the first and second degree burns to her stomach, thighs, and groin, but the surgeon told her she would have to live with the scars.

After Mogavero filed suit, Starbucks attempted to have the case dismissed by arguing that since Mogavero had already accepted the cup from the cashier and was holding the cup when it spilled, that Starbucks could not liable for the accident. The judge allowed the case to proceed to trial. At trial, a Starbucks representative testified that the company received about 80 complaints a month about pop-off lids.

The jury found Starbucks to be 80% liable for the accident and the remaining 20% to be attributable to Mogavero herself.  The jury awarded $85,000 for the

Starbucks

physical impairment and pain and suffering as well as $15,000 for the plaintiff’s medical bills. Starbucks has denied any wrongdoing and has announced it is planning an appeal.The Evolution of Hot Coffee Cases

The Evolution of Hot Coffee Cases

Arguably the most famous personal injury suit is the 1992McDonalds “hot coffee” case.  In that case, an 80 year old woman received third degree burns after the coffee spilled on her.  Her attorneys were successful in arguing that coffee served at 180-190 degrees was unreasonably dangerous.

Over the decades, other hot coffee spill cases have been brought against large corporations such as McDonalds, In-N-Out, and Starbucks. The latest Starbucks case differs slightly from the original McDonalds case. Although the temperature of the coffee in both cases are the same, 190 degrees, Mogavero’s attorneys chose a different route.

Instead of focusing on the temperature of the coffee, the plaintiff’s attorneys here focused on the pop-off lids that caused the spill. Attorneys and judges prefer to focus on precedent, or prior cases, to argue a successful case. However, this successful departure from the norm will benefit consumers in the long run, as plaintiff lawyers now have more than one tool to strike coffee companies with. Conversely, defendants will have to prepare for this new line of assault.

Corporations Should Stop Using the “Control” Argument

On the defense side though, the arguments are parallel. In 1992 and 2017, the focus for the defense is that the customer had control and the corporation no longer did. Since the customer was holding the coffee cup, it was the customer’s fault and therefore McDonalds/Starbucks cannot be liable.

In both cases though, this argument is severally flawed.  First, most states have adopted comparative negligence, which means that juries can assign liability based on percentage.  Attacking the other side is not a good strategy if, at the end of the day, the company is still stuck with 80% of the bill. It’s less than 100%, but still a substantial amount to pay up.

The second flaw with this approach is that it doesn’t really stop the plaintiff from building up a potential case.  In a negligence suit, the customer must show that 1. the company had a duty to be careful, 2. that the company failed in that duty, 3. that failure caused the customer harm, and 4. the harm resulted in injury to the customer. Arguing that the customer had control and therefore the company is not responsible for its product afterwards would invalidate every defective product case. If a microwave burst into flames on its own accord shortly after a customer purchased it, the company selling the microwave would be potentially liable, regardless of whether the appliance burned in the parking lot or at home.

Both McDonalds and Starbucks relied on a “control” argument to dig themselves out of hot coffee cases. If consumers are adapting and winning, companies should avoid using losing arguments.

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