Thursday, August 20, 2020
Starbucks Not Liable for Injury From Spilled Scalding Tea
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has not opened itself up to the sort of national ridicule that followed a 1994 jury award of $2.86 million against McDonald’s in an action brought by a woman who spilled hot coffee on herself and suffered burns, with Div. Seven spurning a plaintiff’s contention that a Los Angeles judge erred in granting summary judgment to Starbucks in a scalded-by-tea case.
Justice John Segal wrote the unpublished opinion, filed Tuesday, affirming a decision by Superior Court Judge Laura A. Seigle.
The opinion is one apt to bring to mind the 1994 case, tried in New Mexico, which evoked jokes, including one-liners by late-night television talk show hosts, and was commonly alluded to in cries for tort reforms. ABC News termed that case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.”
Personal injury attorneys protested that the award was justified by the facts—that the coffee was heated to somewhere between 180 to 190 decrees—and that the plaintiff, 79, was seriously injured, incurring third-degree burns.
Incident in Arcadia
Under the facts of the case before his panel, Segal said—without any allusion to the McDonald’s case—that there is no liability on the part of Starbucks to plaintiff Tina Shih, who suffered second-degree burns from tea she spilled on her lap at a Starbucks Coffee store in Arcadia on June 14, 2016. Shih contended that Starbucks is liable because it filled her cup to the brim and the cup did not have a sleeve around the rim.
“Shih spilled her drink because, after she walked to the table with the two hot drinks in her hands, put her drink down, and removed the lid, she bent over the table, pushed out her chair, lost her balance, grabbed the table to avoid failing, and knocked her drink off the table. Although it is foreseeable that a customer could lose his or her balance while seated at or rising from a table, such an event is not ‘within the scope of the risk’…created by a restaurant’s decision to serve a hot beverage that is filled to the brim or that does not have a sleeve.”
He interjected in a footnote:
“Nor would a sleeve or a less-than-full cup mitigate the injuries reasonably expected to occur from this type of accident.”
Risk Not Boosted
The jurist continued, in the body of the opinion, that “Starbucks’ conduct in serving Shih a full cup of hot tea without a cup sleeve may have ‘set in motion’ the particular ‘series of events’ that led to Shih spilling her drink on herself,” but did not increase the risk that she would lose “her balance while attempting to execute the kind of unorthodox drinking maneuver Shih performed here.”
“To be sure, the absence of a cup sleeve may have increased the likelihood of certain other risks. For example, had Shih burned her hand when she touched the cup or dropped the cup because it was too hot for her to hold, Shih might have been able to allege and show that any injuries she may have suffered were proximately caused by the absence of a sleeve. But that is not what happened. To the extent the absence of a cup sleeve and the amount of tea in the cup caused Shih to lose her balance (because she otherwise would have chosen a more traditional way to drink hot tea), the course of events was not a foreseeable result of the alleged defects.”
In support of that view, Segal cited, among other cases, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company, a May 29, 1928 decision by the New York Court of Appeals authored by Chief Judge Benjamin Cardozo, later a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. That case has, through decades, been examined by first-year law students in learning the concept of proximate cause.
Segal summarized the holding by saying:
“[R]ailway was not liable for the plaintiff’s injuries where a railway guard attempted to push a passenger onto a train, which caused the passenger to drop a package containing fireworks, which exploded, which dislodged scales on the railway platform that struck the plaintiff.”
The case decided by Div. Seven is Shih v. Starbucks Corp., B299329.
Representing Shih were Jeffrey T. Bell and Rick Ma of Bell’s El Monte firm. Acting for McDonald’s was Victoria E. Fuller of the San Diego firm of Niddrie Addams Fuller Singh, teamed with San Diego lawyer Stephen T. Pelletier of Price Pelletier.
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