Update: Alice Griffin v. Starbucks

by Ted Frank on June 7, 2008

Updating our August 2006 post on Alice Griffin v. Starbucks: Griffin alleged that a Starbucks barista spilled hot coffee–195 to 205 degrees–on her, causing second-degree burns on her foot and permanent nerve damage when it scalded her through her pantyhose. A jury agreed and awarded $301,000. The court reduced the award to $201,000, and both sides appealed. On appeal, the New York Appellate Division reduced damages further to $76,000. (Griffin v. Starbucks Corp. (N.Y.A.D. Jun. 5, 2008); Matthew Nestel and Dareh Gregorian, “Gal’s Star’Bucks’ Cut”, NY Post, Jun. 7). New York has tort reform giving judges extra discretion to reduce damages through remittitur.

Compare and contrast to Stella Liebeck and the McDonald’s coffee case.

  • Contrary to the urban legend spread by the litigation lobby that the 185-degree McDonald’s coffee was unusually hot, justifying punitive damages, Starbucks actually serves coffee hotter than McDonald’s does.
  • Stella Liebeck spilled coffee on herself, and argued she should recover because McDonald’s sold a defective product and failed to warn her that coffee was hot. (Liebeck argued that no beverage should be served over 130 degrees.) Ms. Griffin did not argue that Starbucks made a bad product, but, rather, that Starbucks spilled coffee on her. If the allegation was true, it is not a frivolous case.
  • Note also that damages are within the realm of reason.