Case Study

Caution: Coffee is hot

Serving hot coffee became a liability back in the 1990s.

The case involved an elderly woman and a cup of piping hot coffee from McDonald’s. The woman won. McDonald’s had to pay, reportedly in the millions. Coffee purveyors across the country were unofficially on notice: Keep temperatures in check, or else.

In 2015, Tricia Derr and her team tested out their own “hot coffee” case.

The case involved a police officer in Raleigh, North Carolina, who claimed he was burned when his cup of Starbucks coffee spilled on his lap, causing third-degree burns. Unlike the McDonald’s case, this cup of java was “on the house.” It was a token of gratitude given to a public service officer.

The police officer claimed Starbucks was negligent because the coffee lid  “popped off” and the cup “collapsed,” causing the spill. Tricia and her team built their case around personal responsibility and the credibility of the officer. She called into question the underlying motivations of the police officer. In the end, she made the case to the jury that the officer’s story just didn’t add up.

“Starbucks was not negligent,” Tricia told jurors. “Starbucks served a product the way they always do, and it did what it was supposed to do: It was a good cup of coffee.” “You ought to give that officer his money back for exactly what he paid for that cup of coffee – absolutely nothing,” she argued.

The jury agreed. Starbucks was deemed not liable for the burns the officer sustained, and Lincoln Derr won.

Tricia Derr

Tricia Derr is the co-founder of Lincoln Derr and serves at the helm of the firm leading all practice groups through active counsel, litigation, and advising. Ms. Derr is a litigator specializing in innovative multi-media communication, practical business-minded advice, and speaking to audiences in a “real”, non-technical way.