A man recently filed a personal injury lawsuit against Starbucks in California after claiming scalding hot tea seriously injured and disfigured his stomach, hands and genitals. Almost without fail, our South Florida injury lawyers know there will be those who scoff.
“Another ‘hot coffee’ lawsuit? Whose fault is it really if you spill your own drink on yourself?”
It’s been more than a quarter century since the infamous “McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit,” and this reaction proves that there is still a great deal of misunderstanding regarding what that case was about – and why it caused such a stir.
Liebeck v. McDonald’s
The now-infamous hot-coffee case stemmed from a 1992 incident involving a 79-year-old woman in New Mexico. She was sitting in the passenger seat as her grandson drove her to a fast-food drive-thru for some coffee. Her grandson parked the vehicle. That’s when the coffee spilled.
At the time, the plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, fully acknowledged the spill itself was her fault. The problem – and the reason why she sued – was that the coffee was so hot – a near-boiling 190 degrees Farenheit – that it resulted in third-degree burns to her genitals and legs. She required extensive surgery, and she almost died. What’s more, the defendant, McDonald’s, was reportedly aware that their coffee was routinely served at unsafe temperatures. Numerous people – workers and customers alike – across the country had been seriously burned prior to this incident. But the company insisted customers wanted the coffee hot.
Plaintiff initially only sought $20,000, just enough to cover her medical expenses. The defendant restaurant counteroffered for a measly $800. That’s what led her to file the personal injury lawsuit.
Jurors heard the evidence, and determined the fast-food chain’s conduct was so reckless, it should pay $2.9 million. The case ultimately settled for about $600,000, though the chain did alter the way it heats up its coffee.
The lasting legacy, however, is that from the public’s viewpoint, this was the beginning of a rash of so-called frivolous lawsuits. In truth, corporations and legal defense teams spent years (and a great deal of money) on a campaign of disinformation, and many media outlets ran with it. The tactic worked. To this day, many are convinced that frivolous personal injury claims are epidemic. This notion in turn drove a great deal of tort reform efforts over the last 30 years, which made it even harder for those seriously injured to obtain just compensation.
The Reality of Florida Product Liability Lawsuits
In fact, it can be a significant challenge to pursue claims against a company that makes unsafe products that cause injury to consumers. Large companies especially can have armies of corporate defense lawyers, and they will use whatever shred of evidence they can to their advantage.
As our West Palm Beach product liability attorneys can explain, most of the data we have indicates the number of personal injury lawsuits over the last several decades has dropped. The median payout is about $55,000.
This is not to say these cases aren’t worth pursuing. Companies can and should be held liable when their products, used as intended, cause serious injuries. Plaintiffs should have the opportunity to recover for lost wages, uncovered medical expenses, pain and suffering and emotional distress. Such claims can also be ripe for punitive damages (as explained in F.S. 768.72) when they knowingly and willfully allow a dangerous or defective product to be sold. But these are often complex claims that require assistance from injury lawyers with extensive experience, as well as solid expert witness contacts. Many of these cases will require an expert witness if they are to succeed.
It should be noted that several subsequent “hot coffee” cases have succeeded in recent years as well. In 2017, a Florida personal injury plaintiff was awarded $100,000 after she suffered serious burns from the coffee she bought at a Starbucks drive-thru in Jacksonville three years earlier. She alleged the lid on the cup was faulty, causing the near-boiling liquid to spill into her lap and causing her first- and second-degree burns. Evidence showed the company had received more than 80 complaints about coffee lids popping off. Jurors awarded the plaintiff $85,000 for pain and suffering and $15,000 for medical bills.
Contact the South Florida personal injury attorneys at Halberg & Fogg PLLC by calling toll-free at 1-877-425-2374. Serving West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Fort Myers/ Naples. There is no fee unless you win.
Roseville Man Suing Starbucks After His Genitals, Hands Burned With Tea, Sept. 17, 2020, By Adrienne Moore, CBS Sacramento