Hot Coffee: The Drink That Keeps On Giving

Over the past year, we here at Abnormal Use have often written on hot coffee litigation lore.  We have provided you with a comprehensive FAQ file on the famous Stella Liebeck McDonald’s hot coffee case.  We have offered our critique of Susan Saladoff’s recent documentary on the subject.  We have even tried to keep you up-to-date on hot coffee cases around the country.  Why?  With each new case, we can present a new twist on the ridiculousness that is the “unreasonably dangerous” beverage.  Enter exhibits #1,234 and #1,235.

Last week, news broke of litigation in New York and California involving spilled coffee.  In California, a man ordered a Big Mac and two coffees at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Huntington Beach California.  He claimed that a McDonald’s employee dumped “scalding” coffee into his lap, causing him to suffer first- and second-degree burns.  In his lawsuit filed in the Orange County Superior Court, the man now alleges that McDonald’s served coffee at “extremely unsafe” temperatures and used defective cup lids.  He is seeking more than $25,000 in damages.  The report was silent as to any further details.

In New York, a 10-year old girl was awarded $600,000 by a special referee for past and future pain and suffering after she too was burned with hot coffee.  The girl was a guest at a Sweet 16 birthday party when she came into contact with the electrical cord of a 40-cup commercial coffee urn.  Her contact with the cord caused the urn to overturn, spilling coffee onto unspecified parts of her body.  As a result, she suffered second- and third-degree burns and was hospitalized for ten days.  Her mother sued Mastrantonio Catering, Inc. in a New York state court.  After Mastrantonio failed to file a timely answer, the plaintiff moved for a default judgment.  The motion was intially denied, but later reversed and granted by a New York appellate court.

What can we learn here?  Hot coffee litigation spans from coast-to-coast.  Some may argue that the continued expansion of hot coffee cases is evidence that the beverage is unreasonably dangerous.  Others, including the writers here at Abnormal Use, will continue to argue coffee is meant to be served hot and, despite the numerous lawsuits, makers and consumers of coffee share this belief.  McDonald’s, as well as anyone, is familiar with these lawsuits.  Catering companies certainly recognize the need to serve products suitable to their customers.  Despite the threat of litigation, people will continue to demand that their coffee be served hot.

In the California case, the McDonald’s employee allegedly spilled the coffee onto the plaintiff.  It wasn’t that the coffee itself was unreasonably dangerous and defective; rather, the allegation is that an employee negligently spilled hot coffee onto the customer.  In the New York case, the plaintiff was awarded $600,000 after Mastrantonio went into default.  The plaintiff’s motion for default judgment was granted, not because Mastrantonio failed to present a meritorious defense, but rather, because it failed to demonstrate a justifiable excuse for its default.  Once the issue of liability was decided, the special referee was left to determine the extent of the injuries themselves.  Liability was never at issue.  We have never disputed the extent of hot coffee burns in these cases.  Rather, we fail to understand how a maker of coffee can be held liable for preparing and serving a beverage in its expected form.

These cases have one common theme – coffee is hot and can cause burns when spilled.   Some may find these cases ripe for litigation while others feel they have no place in our courtrooms.  Its all a matter of perspective.  You obviously know our perspective.  If you want to read a well-written counter-proposal from a different perspective, check out this piece from Christopher Pascale at Suite 101.

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