The Hot Coffee Case Revisited: Has Proximate Cause Changed in the 25 Years Since Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants?
Two cases decided 25 years apart, but there were some facts in common: a hot drink, a consumer alleging that she was burned by the drink, and a lawsuit. These are the facts of the 1994 case Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants that resulted in an award of millions to the consumer, but also the facts from Shih v. Starbucks, a case decided last year. In Shih, however, the court found in favor of the product supplier. What’s different about these cases? The answer: how the courts interpreted proximate cause.
In 1994, Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants sparked a nationwide tort reform debate after a jury found McDonald’s liable for a consumer’s injuries after she spilled McDonald’s coffee on herself. At the time, many commentators predicted a wave of frivolous lawsuits and large judgments against businesses. But 25 years later, those predictions have not materialized. While consumers continue to sue, the doctrine of proximate cause limits the liability that businesses face from claims for injuries related to hot drinks.
Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants
In 1992, Stella Liebeck bought a cup of hot coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through in New Mexico. While parked, she placed the cup of coffee between her legs and attempted to peel the cap off. The coffee spilled and Ms. Liebeck sustained second- and third-degree burns.
Liebeck sued McDonald’s, alleging that the hot coffee was defectively manufactured, that it violated the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, and that the defect caused her injuries. At trial, Liebeck’s attorneys offered evidence that McDonald’s asked franchisees to brew coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. Additionally, the attorneys offered evidence that McDonald’s had received more than 700 reports of burns resulting from coffee spills out of billions of hot coffees sold during the time period.
The jury ruled in favor of Liebeck and awarded her compensatory damages of $200,000 and punitive damages of $2.7 million. But the jury determined that Liebeck was 20 percent at fault for her own injuries, and the court reduced the punitive award significantly, resulting in compensatory damages of $160,000 and punitive damages of $480,000.
Shih v. Starbucks
Shih v. Starbucks presents a similar set of facts, but with a different outcome. In June 2016, Tina Shih went to Starbucks with a friend, and each ordered a hot tea. Each tea was given to Shih in a double-cup – one full cup placed within an empty cup. Neither cup had a sleeve. Shih carried both teas to her table and sat down.
Shih claimed that because the cup of tea was filled to the top and was very hot, she did not want to lift it. Instead, she pulled the lid off the cup and moved her chair back to sip from the cup while it was on the table. Shih pushed her chair back to lean over the cup, lost her balance, and put her hand on the table to steady herself – causing the hot tea to spill in her lap. Shih sustained second-degree burns from the incident.
Shih sued Starbucks. She alleged that the double-cup without a sleeve was a manufacturing defect, which – combined with the cup being filled to the brim with hot tea – caused her injuries. Starbucks moved for summary judgment on Shih’s claims, arguing that Shih could not prove the alleged manufacturing defect proximately caused her injuries. The court agreed, granted Starbucks’s motion, and entered judgment in favor of Starbucks. In 2020, the appeals court affirmed.
Proximate Cause is Key the Difference
The differences between Liebeck and Shih are the litigants’ defect claims and their respective theories of proximate causation. The proximate cause inquiry examines the relationship between the defendant’s alleged conduct and the plaintiff’s injury: if the defendant’s conduct is too attenuated from the consumer’s injuries, the defendant cannot be held liable for those injuries. Proximate cause exists when the defect in question increased the risk of harm to the consumer, and the consumer sustained injuries resulting from the increased risk. Courts generally test proximate cause by looking at whether the harm was a foreseeable result of the defect – meaning the business could reasonably have predicted the harm.
Liebeck’s attorneys successfully argued that the coffee was defective because it was served too hot and that the excessively hot temperature put Liebeck at an increased risk of burns. Liebeck established proximate cause by showing that her burn injuries were a foreseeable result of the alleged defect – the coffee being served very hot.
Shih could not establish proximate cause because the court held that the alleged defect was too attenuated from her injuries. Shih’s attorneys argued that the lack of a cup sleeve and the fact that the hot tea was full made it defective. Specifically, Shih would not have removed the tea lid, leaned forward, moved her chair, lost her balance and grabbed the table – causing it to wobble and spill the tea on her – if Starbucks had given her a cup sleeve or not filled the cup to the brim.
The court held that the alleged defect did not increase the risk of Shih being burned or otherwise injured by the hot tea; therefore, the defect was not the proximate cause of her injuries. The lack of a sleeve and the fullness of the tea did not increase Shih’s risk of losing her balance “while attempting to execute [this] kind of unorthodox drinking maneuver,” and spilling the tea on herself. The court’s use of “unorthodox” illustrates that, in the court’s view, Shih’s injuries were not a foreseeable result of the alleged defect. The court noted that while it is foreseeable that consumers could lose their balance and spill their drinks, losing one’s balance is not “within the scope of the risk” created by Starbucks’ decision to use a double cup and to fill the cup to the brim. Thus, Shih could not prove Starbucks’ actions proximately caused her injuries.
Twenty-five years after Liebeck sparked a national conversation about hot coffee and corporate liability, Shih demonstrates that courts continue to follow public policy limitations like proximate cause to protect businesses from unforeseeable consumer injuries.