Hot Coffee Lawsuits Keep Coming. Are You Ready?

July 2, 2013 9:13 am

Spilled hot coffee has been a near-continuous darling of product liability lawsuits since the infamous Liebeck vs. McDonald’s case in 1994, in which an elderly New Mexico woman was awarded $2.8 million (the award was later reduced) after hot coffee from McDonald’s scalded and burned her pelvic region, requiring hospitalization and skin grafts.

how to fight hot coffee lawsuits While hot coffee lawsuits no longer make national news, they have actually been more prevalent, and should still be on the radar of coffee shop operators, who are: a) brewing and likely serving hot coffee and milk-heavy espresso drinks that are brewed well above temperatures that could cause second or third degree burns; b) responsible for securing lids on hot drinks; and c) may not have adequate liability insurance protection.

The nonprofit Burn Foundation says water at 140 degrees can cause third degree burning in one second of exposure to the skin. Yet coffee is often brewed well in excess of 190 degrees, and served in excess of 170.

McDonald’s Corp. alone settled at least three hot coffee suits last year, and most of the allegations involve spilled hot coffee in the 170 degree to 190 degree range causing second or third degree burns to limbs, stomachs and pelvic areas. Most often the patrons are in cars but not driving during the incidents, blaming a faulty lid for the spill.

The latest hot coffee product liability lawsuit comes from a 54-year-old Florida man, Francisco Borobolla, who is suing a New Jersey location. His lawyer says he recently suffered “horrendous” burns that required hospitalization after scalding himself during a McDonald’s breakfast. If the past 19 years of legal history is any indication, Borobolla’s suit — which currently seeks unspecified amounts — is likely to be settled out of court, at a big loss to McDonald’s. (The fast food chain was infamously burned in the Liebeck case, eventually shelling out nearly half a million dollars when Liebeck originally only sought $20,000).

When we talk of liquid temperature in the specialty coffee industry, the conversation is almost always related to drink quality. But what of drink safety? Does your coffee shop maintain practices that may one day help it fight a product liability lawsuit? Is there a temperature range for drink service? Are to-go lids composed of high-quality material and are they handled uniformly? Do you have first-hand experience with hot coffee lawsuits?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this important but certainly annoying topic. Comments below.

4 Comments

  • I’m a small-scale roaster selling both bean and brewed at the local farmers market. Reading about the specific mentions of burns to the pelvic region, I would personally assume that such lawsuits are generally avoided by not serving hot coffee to a customer in an automobile. So in this way, my business model might automatically insulate me from many of these problems.

    Additionally, I use more expensive cups and lids than, say, McDonalds: EcoProducts GreenStripe with FoamAroma. The two fit tightly together, probably moreso than the cheap lids and cups from large chains.

  • Seriously! If you order coffee, you’ve obviously been drinking it for some time and you know that it is hot. If people can sue for being burned by the coffee they ordered and paid for, then the company should be able to counter-sue for stupidity! These ridiculous lawsuits have become nothing but “get-rich” schemes and someone has to stop them! Any time a consumer makes a purchase, the liability of the seller should end. Period.

  • At the time of the famous McDonald’s lawsuit from 30 years ago in which there was NO WARNINGS on the cups, that woman’s claim was VALID. She did suffer greatly and I have read her story and it is tragic. She was ridiculed unfairly and never reaped any benefits from her award! In fact from the original judgement of 2.4 Million, she finally received 660K but her surgeries cost in excess of that amount and she was nearly left penniless. I can tell you that even though the drive-thru’s hand you a cup with a lid on it with a warning, it doesn’t eliminate entirely their liability! I have received coffee well in excess of 190 degrees at Jack in the Box which even though there was a warning, apparently it was older coffee and the employee MICROWAVED it too long and it was nearly boiling! I always check first before gulping! But HUMAN ERROR is what most likely causes some incidents. What would be nice is CONSISTENCY! And how about a verbal warning as the employee hands it to the customer? I OWN a coffee truck here in LA and I ALWAYS tell customers when i hand them an Americano or a Cappuccino to let it cool a bit or sip it carefully or I will temper the water to bring it to a safer temperature!

    • Do you really need to be warned that the coffee is HOT??? If you order a hot drink, you should exercise caution. Accidents happen, and sometimes the consequences are terrible, granted, but I would not blame the merchant for serving the hot coffee. I’d hate to be forced to drink lukewarm coffees in the future, because if this law suit nonsense continues, most likely some years from now no one will serve decently hot drinks anymore.

      Next thing we know, we will have people suing manufacturers of microwaves and cook tops for their ability to boil water, or knives manufacturers because they can cut our fingers!

      Seriously!

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