We here at Abnormal Use have remained quiet on the hot coffee lawsuit front in recent months. While news reports of such suits often arise, we think we know when to stop beating a dead horse. After all, we have written on the subject of hot coffee lawsuits some 48 times, and there are only so many ways we can say that there is nothing unreasonably dangerous about a product meant to be served hot. Certainly, such dedication to the legal topic was foreseeable when Stella Liebeck ordered that 49 cent cup of coffee from a New Mexico McDonald’s 23 years ago.
That said, every now and again we must come out of hibernation. And, for good reason. Just because a cup of coffee is a component in an accident case, it does not mean that the case is a “hot coffee case” or bears any resemblance to the infamous Liebeck verdict. It is time the media gets the message.
Last week, myCentralJersey.com ran the following headline: “Dunkin’ Donuts will pay $522k to Somerset woman who tripped, spilled coffee on herself.” Undoubtedly, the headline was designed to attract readers by drawing upon their passions for the Liebeck case. Woman spills coffee on herself and gets a big settlement. Sounds familiar, right? We understand why a reader might click on that link.
The problem is that the case has little, if any, resemblance to the Liebeck case. Upon a review of the article, the reader will see that the case sounds in premises liability – not an allegedly defective product. Back in 2012, the woman purchased multiple cups of coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts. When walking back to her car, she tripped over an exposed spike from a dislodged curb stop. In the fall, she spilled the coffee on her face and neck. She also sustained lacerations on her hand and knee. While she was burned by hot coffee, there is nothing in the report about whether the coffee was abnormally hot or otherwise defective in any respect. In fact, the only quote found in the report comes from the plaintiff’s lawyer, and it, too, makes no reference to the coffee. Specifically, attorney Ed Rebenack said, “Basic property maintenance would have saved Ms. Marsala from years of debilitating injuries.” Clearly, it is a premises – not product – liability matter.
We understand the concept of clickbait. We also understand the need to draw readers to your site. But, for us legal geeks, the headline is painfully misleading to say the least. Yes, the plaintiff obtained a settlement based, in part, due to coffee burns. The case, however, is not a “hot coffee” case at all. Certainly, hot coffee purportedly contributed to the injuries, but Dunkin’ Donuts’ alleged liability rests with the conditions of its premises. The case would have been the same even if hot coffee was replaced with any other object picked up from inside the store capable of causing injuries. For example, if the plaintiff picked up a plastic knife in the store, tripped in the parking lot, and was stabbed by the knife, then the end result could have been the same. (We recognize this is a stretch, but, hey, it’s a hypothetical) Would the headline have read, “Dunkin’ Donuts will pay $522k to Somerset woman who tripped, stabbed herself with plastic knife”?
Absolutely not. Well, maybe, and if it had, we would have certainly written about those facts, as well.
There are some who will use this case as an example of the alleged dangers of hot coffee. Sure, hot coffee can cause burns. That has never been in dispute. It is the liability for hot coffee that generates all the buzz. As ridiculous as we find those lawsuits, this case is not one of those. This is just a premises case that just so happens to involve a cup of coffee. A report whose headline should have read,”Dunkin’ Donuts will pay $522k to Somerset woman who tripped on a dangerous condition in the parking lot, sustained injuries that just so happen to involve a cup of coffee.” That’s more like it.