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.

2 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.

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