The latest in hot-beverage-spilling-and-burning-customers lawsuits has been filed recently in Denver.  This case has a bit of a different swizzle.  In addition to claiming the hot tea she was served at a Starbucks drive-thru burned her, Deanna Salas-Solano claims her dog was also a victim.

Solano may not prevail.  She was burned, certainly.  The tea was so hot it burned her hands, causing her to spill the tea into her lap and causing second-degree burns to her abdomen and thighs.  These burns were so serious she needed skin grafts.

Solano says her dog, Alexander, leapt into her lap in response to her screaming.  Alexander was burned and actually died a short time later.

Solano says the tea lid was not secured, had no hot cup sleeve, and that the tea was not double-cupped.

Starbucks says video evidence contradicts Solano’s claims.  The video allegedly shows Solano on her cellphone with her dog in her lap as she ordered the tea.  Starbucks says the video shows the cup did have a hot sleeve and it appears the lid was secure.  They say it is not clear why the tea spilled, but offer that the dog may have bumped the cup.

The case has not yet been heard in court.

These hot drink cases became “a thing” after the misreported incident involving Stella Liebeck, when in 1992, at age 79, she bought a cup of coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque.  Since that time there have been hundreds of court cases, and possibly thousands of claims brought against sellers of hot drinks across the country.  Many of these cases settled for small or non-disclosed (presumably small) amounts of money, and many more were outright dismissed.

It does not stretch the imagination to suggest that people with spurious claims saw the misinformation disseminated about Liebeck’s McDonald’s case and thought “taking a shot” would not be a bad idea.

Big business interests and those trying to avoid responsibility for their negligence and bad acts, and who were interested in pouring hot water on the potential claims of injured people across the nation, used the Liebeck case as a springboard to denounce “frivolous claims.” The term was probably invented at that time, all because the news media failed to properly report the true facts of Liebeck’s case.

The term “frivolous” was an ingenious one and was used to cast doubt on the claims of virtually every case, including those who were truly injured, whether the injury came from an automobile collision, a slip and fall, medical negligence, a defective product, or even a box falling on someone in a store.  Amazingly effective, simply saying “frivolous” to a judge or a jury psychologically positioned the claim as suspect.  Nobody on a jury, and many judges, would want to report that they awarded significant compensation to someone with a frivolous claim —  “we are not like that McDonald’s case jury who gave all of that money to that old lady.”

ABC News called the case “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.”

So the facts of Ms. Liebeck’s case begin with the misreporting of the amount of money she won, and the amount she ultimately received.  All anyone ever saw in the news was $2.9 million.

Hot coffee served to Ms. Liebeck at a McDonald’s drive-thru spilled and burned her terribly.

Ms. Liebeck wanted only her medical bills paid.  McDonald’s refused. The bill total was about $20,000.00, for numerous painful skin grafts, after the coffee spilled on her thighs, genitals and groin areas, requiring numerous excruciatingly painful skin grafts. McDonald’s offered $800.00 and refused to offer more.

The coffee temperature that spilled in Liebeck’s lap was over 185 degrees Fahrenheit. Testimony at her trial indicated that at such a temperature, if the coffee made contact with skin, it would produce third-degree burns (the most serious kind) in 3-7 seconds.  Servable coffee temperatures should be about 160 degrees.

A jury awarded compensation to Ms. Liebeck in the amount $200,000, but found her 20% responsible, so the amount was reduced to $160,000.  They also awarded the equivalent of two-days’ worth of all of the chain’s worldwide coffee sales, or $2.7 million, as punitive damages.  The judge almost immediately reduced that amount to $640,000.  An appeal was filed, and the parties settled for a confidential amount, less than $640,000, before the appeal was heard.

The misreporting was not limited to the amount of money Ms. Liebeck ultimately received.

The news media never reported that prior to Ms. Liebeck’s incident, McDonald’s had received over 700 reports of injury from their coffee, from over ten years of complaints, including many reports of third-degree burns.

They never reported that McDonald’s own engineers had repeatedly told them to reduce the temperature of the coffee, that it would seriously burn people.

They never reported that the coffee, as served, was not consumable because it was so hot.

They never reported that despite knowing the risks of serving coffee so hot, they never warned customers, and when asked “why not?” they had no answer.

The morale of this story is that you cannot always believe what you read or hear.  Yet, those responsible for the damages they caused enjoyed a wave of skepticism about injury claims, for years, because of the incomplete reporting, marketing efforts, and the public’s willingness to believe.

Since Ms. Liebeck’s case, many others have sought compensation for hot beverages being spilled on them.  Some of these claims had merit and some did not.

In 2010, Rachel Moltner, a Manhattan Starbucks customer, suffered severe burns on her left leg and foot.  She had attempted to remove the lid from a “venti” size cup.  She claimed the double cupping of the tea caused an imbalance in the liquid making it more prone to spill.  Her injuries required skin grafting, and she was hospitalized.  She then got bedsores in the hospital.  Her case was eventually dismissed when the court ruled that double cupping was a recognized method for serving hot tea.

In 2012 a Houston-bound Southwest Airlines passenger, Angelica Keller, was burned by a hot cup of tea served to her and she suffered numerous skin blisters.  She was in the front row and there were no tables to place the cup.  The temperature of the tea was excessive by appropriate standards.  Ms. Keller won $500,000.

In 2012 Jennifer Fragoso sued a New Jersey Dunkin Donuts when a cup of hot cider she purchased spilled on her upper thighs, causing second and third degree burns.  The case received a great deal of media attention, specifically mentioning the Liebeck case as being “an obstacle” for Ms. Fragoso.  No news report ever detailed what happened in this case.

In 2012, in New York, a 14-month old little girl grabbed a cup of coffee from the table where she and her parents were seated, at a Denny’s restaurant.  The coffee spilled and caused numerous burn injuries on the girl’s body.  The claim was that the waitress should not have placed the cup within reach of the toddler.  A settlement was obtained for approximately $500,000.

Also in New York in 2012, a four-year-old young lady gave a cup of coffee, given to her by a McDonald’s employee, to her grandmother, Mona Abdelal.  The coffee lid slid off and spilled all over Mona’s body, resulting in third-degree burns.  The claims included negligence for giving a child such a hot cup of coffee. A lawsuit was filed but was eventually dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning it cannot be refilled.

A North Carolina police officer, Matthew Kohr, spilled a cup of Starbucks coffee in his lap in 2012.  He claimed it aggravated his Crohn’s disease, caused anxiety, and adversely affected his love life with his wife. Starbucks prevailed in the lawsuit.

In 2014, Selena Edwards, a California woman, sued McDonalds after allegedly being burned from a spilled hot coffee drink served to her at a drive-thru.  Photographs she posted on a website were allegedly fake and Ms. Edwards was later charged with 21 felony counts of insurance and worker’s compensation fraud.  No reports of the outcome of these criminal charges could be found.

Anyone can sue anyone, for anything, at any time.  It is a good thing that the court system works.  Claims of “frivolous,” if true, get thrown out quickly.  Ms. Liebeck neither had a frivolous claim nor did she receive an excessive amount.

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