New Year, New Hot Coffee Case

Twenty one years ago, Stella Liebeck spilled what became the world’s most famous cup of coffee. Two years ago, we here at Abnormal Use started writing about her famed litigation against McDonald’s.  Our FAQ file on the litigation and our commentary on the subsequent Hot Coffee documentary created quite a buzz in the blogosphere. (In fact, those posts are still drawing comments two years later). What about a cup of coffee spilled in New Mexico more than two decades ago is so important that we are still talking about it today?

For starters, history keeps repeating itself.  So we have to keep writing about it, right?

According to a report from The Louisiana Record, a Louisiana woman is suing Burger King over burns she allegedly sustained by a cup of the fast food chain’s coffee. The woman alleges that a Burger King employee handed her the coffee through a drive-thru window. When the cup’s lid dislodged, the coffee spilled and allegedly caused serious burns to her arm, chest, and stomach. The woman claims that Burger King failed to properly secure the lid and served coffee at an extreme scalding temperature. Feel like you have heard this story before?

This case remains in its infant stages, so not much is known about the validity of the woman’s complaints. Nonetheless, we all know how this one likely will play out. Again, hot coffee cases are nothing new. In fact, many hot coffee claims predated Stella Liebeck – the McDonald’s case was just the first of a very few cases to see the inside of a courtroom. Based on this precedent, we doubt Burger King and the Louisiana woman will be heard by a jury of their peers, although we suppose that may depend on when the lid dislodged and if the employee was handing it to her as it did.

We’ll see. What is the meaning of all of these hot coffee claims some 20 years after Stella Liebeck? The plaintiff’s bar would have you believe that the Liebeck verdict was a mandate, now ignored, for restaurants to cease serving an “unreasonably dangerous” product. 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. Despite the threat of litigation, people will continue to demand that their coffee be served hot. The debate will rage on.

Before accusing us of spreading dirty corporate information, let us reiterate that we recognize both sides of the issue. You will not hear us questioning the seriousness of Liebeck’s injuries or the temperature of her coffee. Liebeck and many of the plaintiffs that followed sustained significant injuries caused by hot coffee. We do not question these facts. We simply believe that this is a liability issue. Coffee is meant to be served hot, and plaintiffs want it that way – until it is spilled. The latest coffee case will not be the last. As long as people keep drinking hot coffee, restaurants will continue to serve it that way. And, if people keep drinking liquids, spills will ensue. And lawsuits will happen, apparently.

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