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More Hot Coffee for Lawyers

At Overlawyered, there's a post by Christopher "KipEsquire" Tozzo about a recent $310,000 verdict against Starbucks for injuries caused by a hot-coffee spill that some say is reminiscent of the Stella Lieback case against McDonalds of several years back (more discussion of the McDonalds case by Overlawyered here). In the Starbucks case, an employee failed to put a sleeve on a cup of hot coffee and then pushed the scalding cup across the counter to lawyer Alice Griffin. The coffee spilled on Griffin's foot, causing second-degree burns and permanent nerve injury. The judge opined that the verdict seemed excessive, but she declined to reduce the award, much to Tozzo's apparent disappointment (Go figure, he says.).

Another Overlawyered writer, Ted Frank, offered his somewhat surprising opinion of the Starbucks case in this post. Though Frank disagreed with the verdict in the McDonalds case, for him, the Starbucks suit differs. He explains:

But this case is not the Stella Liebeck case. They both involve coffee, but that's the only similarity. Alice Griffin is not suing  Starbucks because their coffee was "too hot." She's suing Starbucks because an employee allegedly dropped a cup of coffee on her foot, causing damage. Assuming no one's lying about how the accident happened, I don't have a problem with that theory of the case: that's just basic principles of negligence and respondeat superior. My objection to the McDonald's coffee case is that McDonald's didn't cause Stella Liebeck to injure herself any more than the manufacturer of Liebeck's sweatpants did, but the plaintiffs sought to hold McDonald's liable anyway. If a McDonald's employee had been the one who spilled Liebeck's coffee, McDonald's should be liable for Liebeck's injuries. But the temperature of the coffee is irrelevant to that inquiry.

Frank also believed that the judge had no grounds for granting remittur:

$301,000 for second-degree burns on a foot strikes me as high, but it's within the realm of the law in New York. The solution, in my mind, is to change the law on non-economic damages, but that's the role of the legislature, not an individual judge.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on August 17, 2006 at 04:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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