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Starbucks Hot Beverage Case Shot Down by California Court

When people are injured by defective products while using them in a reasonably foreseeable manner, they may have the right to recover compensation to cover their losses. However, the alleged defect must have been the direct or proximate cause of an injury for liability to attach. In Shih v. Starbucks Corp., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B299329, the court considered a case in which the plaintiff’s injury was fairly attenuated from the alleged product defect to determine whether liability should attach.[1]

Factual and procedural background

Tina Shih when to a Starbucks restaurant with a friend. Both ordered cups of tea, and Shih went to retrieve them from the pickup counter when they were ready. Shih noticed that the restaurant had placed the teas inside of double cups instead of using sleeves around the cups. She stated that while they were hot, she carried both drinks back to the table where her friend was seated. After placing the cups of tea on the table, Shih sat down. She took the lid off of her drink and bent forward to take a sip instead of picking it up to take a drink. As she leaned forward, her chair moved backward beneath her, causing her to lose her balance. Shih grabbed the edge of the table to regain her balance, which caused her cup of tea to spill. Shih suffered second-degree burns from the beverage spill and filed a lawsuit against Starbucks for negligence and product liability.

Starbucks filed a motion for summary judgment. The company argued that Shih could not move forward on her complaint about product liability because she had based the claim on a lack of adequate warnings about the dangers of spilling hot tea, and the company did not have to warn customers about the obvious dangers of hot beverages. The company also argued that Shih’s negligence claim was based on the allegedly defective cup, and she could not prevail on that claim, either. Finally, Starbucks argued that the defect that Shih alleged did not cause her injuries.

Shih filed an opposition to Starbucks’ motion, arguing that using a double cup instead of a sleeve was a manufacturing defect. She pointed out that the company’s beverage manual said that sleeves should be used on taller cups and that only smaller drinks could be double-cupped. She also argued that her injuries were caused both by the lack of a sleeve and the fact that the drink was filled to the brim.

The trial court granted Starbucks’ motion. It found that Shih had failed to meet her initial burden to show that Starbucks had a duty to warn her about the dangers of hot beverages. It also found that the company’s guidelines about using sleeves versus double-cups was meant to reduce waste rather than to prevent injuries. It also found that Shih’s injuries were not caused by the fullness of the cup or the lack of a sleeve. Shih filed an appeal of the trial court’s decision.

Issue: Whether the double cup was a manufacturing defect, and whether the alleged defect was the cause of Shih’s injuries?

Shih argued on appeal that the placement of the hot tea inside of a double cup instead of a sleeve amounted to a manufacturing defect. She argued that because the beverage was hot, she was unable to pick it up to drink with her hands. She argued that because of that, it was reasonably foreseeable that she would be forced to remove the lid and lean forward to sip from the cup and that her second-degree burns were proximately caused by the alleged defect.

Rule: Manufacturers of defective products are liable when people use the products in a reasonably foreseeable way and suffer injuries that are caused by the defects.

Starbucks argued that the cups were not defective simply because the beverage was served to Shih in a double cup instead of a cup with a sleeve. It also argued that Shih’s injuries were not directly or proximately caused by the lack of a sleeve or by the cup’s being filled to the brim but instead were caused by Shih’s removal of the lid and leaning forward to sip tea from the cup. Because of the lack of a manufacturing defect and a causal link between Shih’s injuries and the lack of a sleeve, Starbucks argued that there were no issues of triable fact for a jury.

Analysis

While Starbucks may be liable for hot beverage spills that injure people, the injuries normally must be directly or proximately caused by a negligent act.[2] For example, as we have previously discussed, a plaintiff might be able to hold the company liable if an employee trips on a defective floor and spills a beverage on the victim or when an employee negligently spills hot beverages on customers in the drive-through or restaurant. However, demonstrating Starbucks’ liability in a case in which a customer spills hot tea or coffee on himself or herself after removing a lid and moving a chair back can be more difficult.

In this case, the court began by reviewing whether the lack of a sleeve constituted a manufacturing defect. It noted that a product may be defective because of an error in its design or manufacture or when inadequate warnings are provided for its risks. The court also noted that plaintiffs must show that the injuries that they suffered were reasonably foreseeable and directly or proximately caused by the alleged defects. In cases in which the defendant’s actions were a cause in fact of the injuries, the defendant may still be absolved based on how the injuries occurred.

Shih argued that the cup was defective because her drink was served without a sleeve and was instead filled to the brim and placed in a double cup. While Shih argued that the cup was too hot for her to pick up and hold to take a drink, the court pointed out that she had carried both cups from the pickup counter to her table. Shih argued that the heat of the cup forced her to remove the lid and lean forward in her seat, which caused her chair to shift backward and her to lose her balance and grab the table. However, the court noted that her argument required a lot of conjecture and did not demonstrate proximate causation between the fullness of the cup or the lack of sleeve and the injuries that she suffered. Because of this, the court found that Shih was missing a required element of the product liability action. It also found that her negligence claim was similarly unsupported.

Conclusion

The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling in granting Starbucks’ motion for summary judgment. It ordered that Starbucks should be allowed to recover its costs for the appeal and dismissed the lawsuit against Starbucks.

Talk to an experienced Los Angeles personal injury attorney

Suffering serious injuries while using a defective product can leave you with substantial losses. Product manufacturers, designers, and others who are involved in the chain of production may all be liable to pay damages for the victims’ injuries when they are injured because of defective products. If you believe that your injury was caused by a defective product, you should talk to an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles at the Steven M. Sweat Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us today to request a free case evaluation by filling out our contact form or calling us at 866.966.5240.

Sources

[1] https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2020/b299329.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2020-08-28-personal-injury-00b3f250f2&utm_content=text-case-read-more-7

[2] https://www.victimslawyer.com/california-starbucks-accident-attorney-los-angeles.html

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