Ted on the Return(?) of the Coffee Tort

by Ted Frank on August 17, 2006

(Bumping from August 16, 2:30 pm upon update.)

I’ve been invoked. Some observations about the New York case of Alice Griffin v. Starbucks:

1) Hey, it’s Starbucks that caused second-degree burns. Haven’t ATLAAAJ and Professor Turley been telling us that only McDonald’s sold coffee that could cause burns, and that’s why it was alright to impose punitive damages on the fast-food restaurant? Are we now to believe that other restaurants sell hot coffee capable of causing burns, and McDonald’s conduct wasn’t so unreasonable? (Overlawyered readers aren’t surprised.)

2) Certainly the New York Daily News bought the hype, with the reporters repeating the plaintiffs’ bar claim that coffee isn’t supposed to be hot enough to cause burns, though that claim has no basis in fact. I don’t think we’ll see Turley complaining about this plaintiffs’-bar-created legal urban legend, however.

3) But this case is not the Stella Liebeck case. They both involve coffee, but that’s the only similarity. Alice Griffin is not suing Starbucks because their coffee was “too hot.” She’s suing Starbucks because an employee allegedly dropped a cup of coffee on her foot, causing damage. Assuming no one’s lying about how the accident happened, I don’t have a problem with that theory of the case: that’s just basic principles of negligence and respondeat superior. My objection to the McDonald’s coffee case is that McDonald’s didn’t cause Stella Liebeck to injure herself any more than the manufacturer of Liebeck’s sweatpants did, but the plaintiffs sought to hold McDonald’s liable anyway. If a McDonald’s employee had been the one who spilled Liebeck’s coffee, McDonald’s should be liable for Liebeck’s injuries. But the temperature of the coffee is irrelevant to that inquiry.

4) Note in that regard that Griffin’s injuries were exacerbated because her sneaker, sock, and stocking held the coffee close to her foot. If Griffin had spilled the coffee on herself, I think no liability on Starbucks should follow, and that blaming Starbucks would be like blaming Griffin’s stocking manufacturer.

5) I don’t blame the judge for failing to impose remittitur. $301,000 for second-degree burns on a foot strikes me as high, but it’s within the realm of the law in New York. The solution, in my mind, is to change the law on non-economic damages, but that’s the role of the legislature, not an individual judge. Christopher “KipEsquire” Tozzo and I apparently disagree on the appropriate role of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy, and this is a topic worth further discussion in another post at a future date. (Update: New York state law was changed some years back to give the judge the power to issue remittitur rulings without deference to the jury’s decision if the award deviates materially from reasonable compensation. CPLR 5501(c). Therefore, criticism of the judge’s approval of the award, when she acknowledged it was “too high,” is appropriate. But Tozzo and I do have other disagreements about the judicial role that are worth highlighting in future posts.)

Aug. 17 Update: Turns out Tozzo’s criticism of the judge is premature after all. While the Daily News story was less than clear, it did not quite say that the judge refused to reduce the jury award. Reuters is reporting that the judge is reducing the jury award, with the precise amount to be determined at a later hearing, while the the New York Post is reporting that the remittitur motion has not been decided yet. Note that the Reuters story views it irrelevant as to who spilled the coffee, thus encouraging unjust comparisons to the Stella Liebeck case. The New York Post is explicit in comparing the case to the Liebeck case, though it botches the description of Liebeck’s accident (Liebeck wasn’t driving).

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Update: Alice Griffin v. Starbucks
06.07.08 at 11:37 am

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1 KipEsquire 08.16.06 at 2:45 pm

But the judge herself suggested that the damage award was too high.

That might not rise to the “no rational jury could award…” standard we think of in post-verdict relief, but it’s indicative of the phenomenon I’m describing.

2 Ted 08.16.06 at 2:52 pm

Okay, I see the New York state law was changed so that a judge has the power to award remittitur when damages “deviate materially from reasonable compensation,” which is a much lower standard of deference than most courts give to damages awards. CPLR § 5501(c). So one can legitimately blame the judge in this instance.

3 Xrlq 08.16.06 at 4:25 pm

In the pre-Liebeck era, I used to enjoy sipping the ultra-hot coffee from McD’s. Now that they serve it at normal-coffee temperature, I can actually tell that the stuff tastes like crap. Can I sue them for that, or do I have to enlist a clumsy McD’s employee to spill the stuff on my tastebuds for me?

4 KipEsquire 08.17.06 at 7:16 am

So first I’m wrong about invoking remitittur at all, then I’m wrong for invoking it too soon?

Go figure.

5 LAN3 08.17.06 at 11:17 am

Of course Stella Liebeck was driving– it’s just that she had set the cruise control and taken her hands off the wheel to fiddle with her coffee when she saw someone with their lights off at night and decided to flash her lights. Suddenly she was part of a gang initiation…

[Fortunately, the one-armed murderer was still attached to her passenger-side mirror, and was able to fend off the gangsters. -- T.F.]

6 Rod Heggy 08.18.06 at 12:00 pm

How is the blogging community evaluating the value of the claim? I’ve seen no mention of medical expenses, medical reports of residual disability, or, heaven forbid, the expenses incurred in litigation or, gasp, legal fees.

[All of that information is in the cited links. Medical expenses were $1,000.–TF]

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