News / Vancouver

‘Hot coffee’ lawsuit 2.0? Not so fast, says B.C. judge in Starbucks tea-scalding case

A case tossed from a Sechelt court on Feb. 1 bore similarities to 1994’s infamous—and widely misunderstood—$3M lawsuit against McDonald’s.

A Starbucks coffee cup sits discarded in this file photo.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Starbucks coffee cup sits discarded in this file photo.

Remember the 1994 “hot coffee” lawsuit that saw a U.S. jury order McDonald’s to pay a coffee-burn victim $2.86 million in damages?

Turns out Starbuck’s could have had its own “hot tea” moment in Canada — except in the Sechelt, British Columbia case, a provincial court judge tossed out a local woman’s lawsuit that had steeped for 17 months.

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On Feb. 1, judge Steven Merrick dismissed a tea-burn lawsuit filed by Shayla Williams, who received second- and third-degree burns to her “left thigh and gluteal area,” she testified, after “the lid popped off” a cup of tea she’d ordered from a Starbucks drive-through — served at 86C, the company testified.

“Understandably, Ms. Williams was in significant pain,” Merrick ruled. “… Despite my sympathy for the claimant who clearly suffered extremely painful burns, it is my judgment that she has not proven her case against the defendant.”

Filed in 2015, two years after the Sept. 30, 2013 incident, Williams’ lawsuit bore some similarities to a 1994 lawsuit in which a jury found McDonald’s was negligent in serving its coffee between 82C and 88C, ordering massive punitive damages that sparked Republican efforts to curb what conservatives saw as frivolous litigation and excessive jury awards.

Less widely reported in the U.S. case — thanks to a corporate public relations campaign — was the fact that the 79-year-old victim, Stella Liebeck, had been hospitalized with third-degree burns for eight days and forced to have skin transplants, after receiving burns to 22 per cent of her body.

In Williams’ Sechelt case, a Starbucks witness testified that outlets heat their water to 93C, and hold and serve it at 86C. Like in the McDonald’s lawsuit, both companies argued their water temperatures were industry standard, that customers expect their hot beverages to be hot, and that the claimants were to blame for spilling their own drinks.

But Williams “believed that she was burned because the tea was so hot that it distorted the cup,” Merrick wrote in his Feb. 1 ruling, “causing the lid to become loose and fall off the cup.

“She says when that happened, the cup lost its structural rigidity causing the tea to come up and over the top of the cup and onto her.”

But after four days of hearings starting last November, the B.C. judge concluded he didn’t buy her story, even when she presented as evidence the supposedly “distorted” cup.

“I am unable, by looking at it, to conclude it distorted as suggested,” he wrote. “… It is more likely that Ms. Williams either dropped the cup or knocked off the lid as she was removing the seat belt and/or attempting to pick up her purse, open the car door, and get out of the car while holding one or both drinks in her hands.”

In dismissing her lawsuit, Merrick issued a warning to other tea and coffee drinkers at the drive-through: Restaurants “may serve tea that is hot enough to burn skin,” he advised. “Tea is expected to be served hot … she was expecting hot tea.”