In not just one recent case, but two:
* “During a meeting about commissions, minimum wage, and employee breaks [at a Yuma, Ariz. car dealership], an employee lost his temper, angrily calling his supervisors words such as [obscenities omitted]. He also stood up, shoved his chair aside, and told them they would regret it if they fired him. Unsurprisingly, that tirade resulted in the employee’s termination. Astoundingly, in Plaza Auto Center (5/28/14), the NLRB concluded that the termination was an unlawful violation of the employee’s rights to engage in the protected concerted activity.” [Jon Hyman, Ohio Employer's Law Blog; Brennan Bolt, Labor Relations Today]
* “Starbucks cannot fire a union activist employee who cursed at a manager in front of customers, the National Labor Relations Board has ruled for the second time. Joseph Agins was active in trying to unionize four Manhattan Starbucks coffee shops between 2004 and 2007.” His repeated imprecations, sometimes in the presence of customers, included “this is [BS],” “do everything your damn self,” “about damn time” when the manager arrived to help, and “go … yourself”. A protected pattern of behavior under federal labor law, the NLRB ruled. “The board ordered Starbucks to offer Agins his old job or a substantially equivalent position, compensate him for any loss of earnings and other benefits, and remove from its files any references to the unlawful firing.” [Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Compare the separately developed field of “hostile-environment” law, in which the employer may be held liable for years’ worth of back pay if it does not separate from the workplace an employee who repeatedly confronts a co-worker with belligerent and profane abuse (& Scott Greenfield).
Crestwood, Mo.: “The Starbucks coffee shop here should have known it was inviting trouble by placing a tip jar on an open counter, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the estate of a customer who died defending it.” Customer Roger Kreutz saw a teenager grab the jar and gave chase on foot; he was killed when the miscreant backed his car over him. Kreutz’s estate has now filed a suit alleging “that Starbucks ‘did not employ security to prevent the perpetration of such crimes’ and that it ‘invited the act of perpetration of said crime’ by having a tip jar.” [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
“A Manhattan woman has failed to persuade a U.S. appeals court that Starbucks Corp should be held liable for severe burns she suffered after spilling tea served in a double cup.” [NY Daily News]
Brooklyn mother Villona Maryash spills tea on her five-month-old infant, infant burned, sues Starbucks. But the complaint is not that the beverage was too hot, but that Starbucks should’ve served it on a tray and with a sleeve. Of course, protective sleeves are in ready reach of customers at every Starbucks I’ve been in, and it’s likely that Starbucks doesn’t insert the cups in sleeves automatically for environmental reasons. [NY Post; Gothamist commenters are not impressed]
By popular demand, we note the existence of the case of Zeynep Inanli v. Starbucks Corp et al, New York State Supreme Court, New York County, No. 105767-2010, where Ms. Inanli has alleged second-degree burns from tea that was “unreasonably hot, in containers which were not safe.”
You will recall that part of the trial lawyer defense of the McDonald’s hot coffee case are the factually false claims that (1) only McDonald’s sold beverages hot enough to cause burns and (2) after Stella Liebeck won her suit, hot-beverage vendors everywhere reduced their temperatures to a “safe” level. Of course, the Reuters account fails to indicate sufficient facts to determine whether Ms. Inanli’s scenario reflects injuries from a spill that was her own fault or the fault of Starbucks.
It does not violate the law for shift supervisors to share in the tip jar, ruled a California court of appeal [Central California Business Times; earlier at Point of Law]
Starbucks’s job application asked prospective baristas if they’d been convicted of a crime in the past seven years and added for “CALIFORNIA APPLICANTS ONLY”, at the end, that minor marijuana possession convictions more than two years old didn’t have to be disclosed, in accord with a state law along those lines. Entrepreneurial lawyers then tried to steam-press $26 million or so out of the coffee chain on the following theory: that the clarification was placed too far down the application after the original question; that Starbucks had therefore violated the California Labor Code; and that each and every Starbucks job applicant in California since June 2004, perhaps 135,000 persons, was owed $200 in statutory damages regardless of whether they had suffered any harm. Per John Sullivan of the Civil Justice Association of California, the lawyers also took the position that “it didn’t matter that two of the three job applicants who signed on as named plaintiffs testified in court that they read the entire application and knew they didn’t have to mention a marijuana conviction (which neither had anyway!)” The court refused to certify the class and made the following observations (courtesy CJAC blog):
* “There are better ways to filter out impermissible question on job applications than allowing ‘lawyer bounty hunter’ lawsuits brought on behalf of tens of thousands of unaffected job applicants. Plaintiffs’ strained efforts to use the marijuana reform legislation to recover millions of dollars from Starbucks gives a bizarre new dimension to the every day expressions ‘coffee joint’ and ‘coffee pot.’”
* “Enhancing the prospects for obtaining a settlement on a basis other than the merits is hardly a worthy legislative objective.”
* “Given the size of the class, the potential exposure is so large that the pressure to settle may become irresistible. …’This is a valid concern: Many corporate executives are unwilling to bet their company that they are in the right in in big-stakes litigation, and a grant of class status can propel the stakes of a case into the stratosphere …This interaction of procedure with the merits justifies an earlier appellate look. By the end of the case it will be too late — if indeed the case has an ending that is subject to appellate review.’”
* “The civil justice system is not well-served by turning Starbucks into a Daddy Warbucks.”
More coverage: Aaron Morris, Metropolitan News-Enterprise, and Carlton DiSante & Freudenberger. One of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the case, H. Scott Leviant, is known for his blog The Complex Litigator.
One can almost fill an entirely separate blog with variations on the McDonald’s hot coffee case. In Manhattan, 77-year-old Rachel Moltner ordered a hot tea from a Starbucks, but had trouble removing the tightly-secured lid, spilling the beverage all over her. (You will recall other lawsuits complaining that the Starbucks lids are not tight enough.) Moltner not only blames Starbucks for her resulting second- and third-degree burns (and recall that the raison d’être of the Stella Liebeck suit was the false claim that only McDonald’s served beverages that were hot enough to cause third-degree burns), but for the broken bones she suffered when she fell out of bed in Lenox Hill Hospital while being treated for burns. Moltner’s asking for $3 million.
Press coverage in the NY Post (h/t P.G.) is short on legal details (though one is encouraged to see Starbucks publicly defending themselves, an apparent change in policy). But I’ve downloaded and uploaded the complaint, which was filed in state court and removed to federal court. The kitchen-sink allegations include a defective cup, defectively hot tea, and a failure to warn. Right now the parties are haggling over federal removal jurisdiction, as Starbucks waited more than thirty days after receiving the complaint–until a formal demand for money was made–to seek removal. This is an interesting example of sandbagging; if defendants remove cases simply on the possibility that alleged damages will exceed the amount-in-controversy requirement, they may incorrectly remove cases that should remain in state court, but if they wait for the formal confirmation from the plaintiff, they may face the allegation that they’ve missed the 30-day window to remove a case–something to consider when plaintiffs’ attorneys complain that defendants reflexively remove cases to federal court that don’t belong there. Moltner has a good argument that Starbucks waited too long to remove, because alleged damages would have clearly exceeded $75,000 despite the lack of an ad damnum clause in the complaint citing a number, but the consequence of such a ruling will be that defendants will be forced to prematurely remove cases that perhaps should not be removed. (Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., #: 1:08-cv-09257-LAP-AJP (S.D.N.Y.)).
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.
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You will recall that defenders of the absurd McDonald’s coffee lawsuit insist that the suit was justified because only McDonald’s sold beverages capable of third-degree burns. We’ve repeatedly shown that that claim is fictional, but add one more example: a New Jersey man is suing Starbucks for selling “unsafe” hot tea that caused third degree burns on his hand when he spilled it on himself (though at least, unlike Stella Liebeck, he is claiming that the spill is the store’s fault for failing to attach the lid properly). Because Starbucks does not comment on litigation, they surrender the entire article to the plaintiffs’ attorney for Antonio Couso to use as a platform when the reporter does not bother double-checking any of the lawyer’s claims. (John Petrick, “Starbucks sued over spilled tea”, The Record, Jul. 27).
(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:
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We normally see Starbucks in this space when they’re being sued over hot coffee, much like the infamous McDonald’s coffee case.
A Tulsa, Oklahoma, coffeeshop, Doubleshot Coffee, however, has received a scary-lawyer letter from Starbucks, claiming that Starbucks has an exclusive right to use the term “double shot” in relation to coffee. The proprietor writes in his blog (via Romenesko):
So today, as a legal clarification, I would like everyone to know that we are not Starbuck’s Doubleshot. If we tricked you into coming in here, thinking you could get a can of Starbuck’s DoubleShot here, please let me know. And if you thought that $2 Tuesday was a sale on Starbuck’s Doubleshot, I vehemently apologize for the confusion and ask you to please not come in here anymore because stupid people annoy me.
Janine Arslanian alleges “extensive and gross second and third degree burns to her right hand and arm” from a spill of Starbuck’s coffee. Gee, it couldn’t possibly be the case that the plaintiffs’ bar misled us when they said the Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s coffee case (which we discussed Dec. 10) was unique because it was only McDonald’s coffee that was hot enough to cause serious burns, could it? (Jamie Herzlich, Newsday, Dec. 30).
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