Apr 15, 2024

Hot Coffee Cases: Why You Shouldn’t Scold the Scalded

Spilled coffee on a laptop keyboard on a wooden desk

At Morgan & Morgan, we know the impact that a scald burn can have on someone’s life. We’ve secured winning verdicts on behalf of countless victims of this very injury. In one case, that was a $100,000 verdict on behalf of someone who was seriously burned by hot coffee in a Starbucks drive-through. 

The 43-year-old mother of three suffered first- and second-degree burns on her mid-section after the lid on a 20-ounce Venti-sized cup of Pike’s Place coffee popped off without warning, causing 190°F coffee to spill onto her lap. The painful, life-altering injuries cost the victim over $15,000 in medical bills and resulted in permanent scars on her body.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time a customer has been gravely injured by product liability cases. Cases like this and the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit have left restaurant customers with life-altering injuries. Unfortunately, such cases are often treated as a punchline among those who feel our country has become overly litigious, despite the severity and seriousness of the injuries involved.

You need only listen to Toby Keith’s classic lyric, “Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars,” to understand how our country views these cases.

This mockery makes those injured fearful of coming forward to pursue justice, even if their injuries require extensive surgery and they have accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills. It shouldn’t be that way.

Today, we break down these cases to show just how serious they are, how these stories are spun in some publications, and why big corporations must be held accountable for the products they sell, whether it’s an appliance, a car, or a simple cup of coffee.

What’s in a Cup?

Part of the reason why our client was harmed so severely by her spilled Starbucks coffee was because of the company’s standard serving temperature of 190°F. If that doesn’t sound too hot, consider that 140°F is enough to burn the skin, and 212°F is the boiling point for liquids.

In fact, coffee at the Starbucks serving temperature of 190°F can cause third-degree burns in just a few seconds. By comparison, most home coffee makers brew liquids at a temperature between 135°F and 150°F, which baristas have identified as a more ideal drinking temperature by some studies.

The standard of serving coffee at 190°F is not restricted to Starbucks. McDonald's, Dunkin Donuts, and other giants in the industry have been accused of serving their coffee at dangerous hot temperatures as well.

The Infamous McDonald’s “Hot Coffee” Case

The year 1992 went down in history as the year of the infamous “hot coffee” case, a symbol to many Americans of everything wrong with law, after Stella Liebeck was awarded $2.7 million—later reduced to less than $500,000—for her burn injuries.
But what really happened in the case of Liebeck v. McDonald’s? In the haste to paint the case as a “get rich quick” scheme, what was ignored was her serious, life-altering injuries.

She was portrayed as someone who spilled hot coffee on herself while carelessly cruising down the highway with a coffee cup in her lap. However, Liebeck was actually a passenger in a parked car when the 190°F coffee spilled on her lap, according to The New York Times.

“We knew, before the lawsuit was filed, that the temperature of the water was 190 degrees or so, and the franchise documents that we obtained had noted such a requirement of the franchisee,” said Kenneth Wagner, the lawyer who represented Liebeck, to the American Museum of Tort Law. “Our position was that the product was unreasonably dangerous, and the temperature should have been lower.”

And despite the late-night talk-show jokes made at her expense, Liebeck’s injuries were far from funny. The hot coffee spill resulted in severe burns to her mid-section and lap, requiring multiple expensive operations and skin grafts, according to Mother Jones.

Furthermore, the iconic case went to court only after Liebeck’s initial complaint—about $20,000 to cover her medical bills—was met with an $800 settlement offer, a slap in the face after the cost of her skin grafts and other procedures.

The reputation of Liebeck v. McDonald’s as a “jackpot case” still endures, to the detriment of consumers all over the country. Our attorneys are determined to give these victims a voice and get justice.

Our Winning Case

Morgan & Morgan attorneys Steve Earle and Ashley Winstead led the charge on our victorious case by arguing that Starbucks should have warned its customers about the tendency of their coffee cups’ lids to pop off, placing customers at risk of burns when the contents spill out.

Starbucks receives 80 complaints a month about lid leaks and lids popping off, according to a Starbucks representative's testimony. And yet, despite these complaints, the company continues to serve its dangerously hot coffee without warning customers or improving the design of its coffee cups.
The jury sided with our attorneys’ convincing arguments and awarded the client $100,000 for her pain and suffering, physical impairment, and the medical bills that accumulated to treat her injury, among other things.
“My client didn’t want sympathy from the jury she wanted justice—and the jury gave it to her with their verdict,” Earle said. “It was good to see a just result."

Business Liability in Hot Liquid Cases 

It should not be a consumer’s fault when they are handed an extremely hot beverage or worse, when it spills all over them. Unfortunately, these kinds of instances could be easily avoided, but continue to happen and leave victims suffering the consequences. That’s where a personal injury law firm comes in to help handle the aftermath when someone has scars, medical bills, and other impacts from a scald burn. 

Businesses that sell any kind of hot beverage must exercise appropriate care in serving these drinks to consumers. Many coffee shops and restaurants are concerned about complaints from consumers and also use machines that make beverages extremely hot. Sometimes these beverages can be handed over to a customer as high as 190 degrees, which is too hot for a person to safely consume this beverage. When a liquid comes in contact with human skin or even an animal, it can cause serious injuries and severe scalding burns. Anyone who has been seriously injured as a result of a scalding hot beverage needs to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney.

Creating a hot drink at a high temperature is not negligence in and of itself. However, most people assume that their beverage is safe to drink at the time it is served to them for consumption. In the event that a person suffers serious injuries by being served a beverage that is far too hot and has not been appropriately warned about the heat of the beverage, they may be eligible to pursue compensation. At the bare minimum, consumers should be warned about very hot liquid temperatures and be informed by the establishment that they should not drink it for some period of time.

It is best that a company creating and serving these hot beverages provide a verbal warning and can also include labels on the side of the cup. One of the most common reasons for these lawsuits to emerge is when a restaurant worker fails to secure the lid to the cup before serving it to the customer. Although the beverage may have been safe and protected from human contact when the lid was appropriately secured, failing to secure the lid puts the risk on the consumer and it could cause them to suffer serious and devastating injuries. Consumers do not suspect that a beverage is going to tip over or come loose, causing the hot liquid to spill on them. Unfortunately, in busy drive-through lanes, these kinds of accidents can easily and often happen.

Scalding burn injuries associated with beverages, however, are not limited to drive-throughs alone. For in-restaurant driving, burn injuries can happen when a server spills hot liquid onto a seated customer. Furthermore, other lawsuits have been filed when a coffee pot or teapot at extremely high temperatures is left within reaching distance of an infant or child. A child can turn over that container and spill liquid on their skin and head, and these injuries can be devastating. This can include first-degree burns, second-degree burns, or even third-degree burns. Unfortunately, these often come with permanent scars and significant medical expenses. These are serious cases that need to be handled by an experienced and qualified personal injury attorney.

Hurt? We Can Help

At Morgan & Morgan, our firm is proud to have fought for justice on behalf of our clients, and we will continue to represent those who have been hurt by the negligence of others, including big corporations. That’s what being “For the People” is all about.

If you or someone you love was hurt by the negligence of a large company, our attorneys may be able to help you, too. Fill out our free, no-risk case evaluation form to learn more today.