Dunkin’ Donuts coffee also scalds

by Ted Frank on November 18, 2005

Litigation-reform opponents regularly criticize the mention of the McDonald’s coffee-case lawsuit on the phony grounds that the McDonald’s coffee was unusually hot, and thus “defective.” A search of this website can find many other lawsuits over hot coffee causing third-degree burns, and you can now add Dunkin’ Donuts to the mix. Sharon Shea was holding a tray of two cups of coffee that allegedly “toppled over” and received second- and third-degree burns on her left leg and ankle. The 60-year-old is suing Dunkin’ Donuts for $10 or $15 million in New York state court in Staten Island. (Jotham Sederstrom, “$15M suit for burns from java”, New York Daily News, Nov. 18; Hasani Gittens, “$10M suit for java jolt, NY Post, Nov. 17) (hat-tip: Roth).

{ 9 comments }

1 TexasLefty 11.18.05 at 10:51 am

Actually, when consumer advocates are criticizing tort reformers on these matters, the principal criticism is that these reports only tell half the story, at best. Saying that meritless lawsuits are occasionally filed is far different from saying that those lawsuits are successful. Yet tort reformers equivocate on this point. The result is that a good chunk of the population is left with the false impression that plaintiffs routinely walk away with millions for frivolous claims. In fact, as you certainly know (but don’t ever actually say), the system does a fine job of flushing out ridiculous suits early. Of all the frivolous claims tort reformers cite, how many make it to trial? How many result in a plantiff’s verdict? The big “exception” is the McDonald’s case (if you want to call that one frivolous), which ended up with a plaintiff’s verdict, but was later reversed on appeal. But that is precisely why it is important to assess what made the McDonald’s case unique. That assessment is something you are unable (or unwilling) to perform.

2 Peter Eipers 11.18.05 at 11:07 am

10 mil? 15? At least it’s not about the money…

3 Ted 11.18.05 at 11:19 am

TexasLefty,

1. The McDonald’s case was not reversed on appeal. McDonald’s settled rather than risk a larger award on appeal.

2. If ATLA and tort-law professors like Professor Turley adopted your argument and said “The McDonald’s coffee case was an aberrational mistake that the tort system should not be judged by,” that would be one thing, and perhaps even a correct argument. But they don’t: they argue that the McDonald’s coffee case was correctly decided, and that all hot-coffee-spills should result in recovery.

When the aspirational goal is to make the McDonald’s coffee case the norm, that merits commentary.

3. The system does not do a “fine job of flushing out” meritless suits early. Witness the Vioxx litigation: the first two cases were meritless, both went to trial, and one still has the potential for multi-million-dollar recovery. The third suit, starting this November, is also meritless, but will likely go through a multi-million-dollar trial first if Judge Fallon doesn’t have the courage to toss it, but no reasonable jury looking at the science could think that Vioxx was more likely than not the cause of Dicky Irvin’s fatal heart attack.

4. I’m not sure what you think I’ve failed to assess with the McDonald’s case. I’ve covered it in exhaustive detail in earlier posts.

4 Colin P. Varga 11.18.05 at 1:01 pm

If McD’s et al would rather pay out millions instead of serving coffee at a temperature which the average person can actually drink it, let them. It’s just stupid on their part. They have been sued muliple times for this I would think by now they wouldn’t bother with settling lawsuits and just hand the cash over to the injuried party at the counter. There is a difference in brewing the coffee and serving it. McD’s has many specialized pieces of equipment I sure they can develope an aparatus which can brew coffee at one temperature and keep it at another. I found this on “Good Morning Coffee”:

“The optimal temperature range for brewing coffee is 195 to 204 degrees F. Many coffeemakers don’t get up to 195, so test yours with a stick thermometer (such as a milk frothing thermometer). Just insert it carefully into the brew basket suring the usual brew cycle.

If the temperature of the brew water isn’t at least 195 degrees, the coffee is underextracted, not as flavorful, and can actually have a sour taste.

The best temperature for drinking coffee is 130 to 140 degrees…not scalding hot. You will taste much more flavor at this temperature.”

Grinding my own beans since 1990.
Colin

5 Ted 11.18.05 at 1:12 pm

Of course, the laws of physics being what they are, serving coffee at 130-140 degrees means that it will be 90-100 degrees by the time someone adds milk, and sugar, and starts to drink it, far short of the optimal temperature suggested by Colin.

McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts have no incentive to serve coffee that’s “too hot.” They serve coffee at the temperature they do because that’s what their customers prefer. Most courts have the common sense to throw out these claims when plaintiffs claim that hot coffee is inherently defective. Whether that will still be true in twenty years after the current generation of law students are judges is the question.

6 Mark 11.18.05 at 2:28 pm

I read the article in the NY Daily News this morning and you both missed the point of the suit. The claim is not that the coffee is hot but the cup lids were not fastened and when she dropped the cups it burned her leg. Since I am not a lawyer how can prove or disprove the claim?

7 liz 11.18.05 at 7:20 pm

Are you kidding me? Duh! Use caution when handling coffee. It’s just plain ol’ common sense.

8 Deoxy 11.21.05 at 11:07 am

Colin P. Varga,

Starbucks sells coffee just as hot, as does Bunn-o-matic, Dunkin’ Donuts, and any other place that wants to be known for having good coffee.

That is the PREFERRED temperature for coffee to be served, as evidenced repeatedly by where people choose to go for coffee.

9 Overlawyered 12.18.05 at 12:15 am

Welcome Baltimore Sun readers

The newspaper of H.L. Mencken gave this site a nice recommendation Nov. 24 (not online) in its column about the Web, “The Monitor”:What’s the point? — This site explores the ever-increasing litigiousness of society by…

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