Can I get an Extra Hot Mint Tea in a Venti Cup, but Only Filled Halfway?


By: Parisa Saleki

Starbucks. The major corporation is more than just a coffee shop – for many, it is a way of life. Yet, not even Starbucks is safe from lawsuits. The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, recently reviewed a case against Starbucks that will remind many of the infamous “McDonald’s hot coffee case.”

In 1994, the country was obsessed with Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, a product liability case out of New Mexico where a civil jury awarded the plaintiff $2.86 million dollars after she suffered third-degree burns from accidentally spilling her hot McDonald’s coffee on her lap.

Flashforward to 2020, and we have Shih v. Starbucks Corp., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B299329. In this recently appealed and reviewed case, Plaintiff Tina Shih sued Starbucks after she suffered second-degree burns from accidentally spilling her hot cup of tea on her lap.

Based on Plaintiff’s complaint that was filed in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, after ordering and retrieving a hot cup of tea from a local Starbucks coffee-counter, Tina Shih took her drink to a table to sit and enjoy her beverage. She noticed that her drink was served in a double-cupped fashion rather than with a sleeve. She sat down at a table and removed the lid on the cup. Then, rather than pick up the hot, double-cupped tea, Plaintiff Shih elected to lean towards her drink to take a sip. As she bent forward, she lost her balance, grabbed the edge of the table to regain her balance, and the wobbling table caused her tea to spill on her. After sustaining second-degree burns, she followed Liebeck’s lead and filed a lawsuit against Starbucks for negligence and product liability.

Starbucks filed a Motion for Summary Judgment of Plaintiff’s claims, asserting that the use of double-cups rather than a sleeve is not a product defect. In opposition, Plaintiff argued that the major coffee corporation should be liable for a manufacturing defect because of the double-cup, no sleeve method and because her drink was filled to the brim. Plaintiff argued that her beverage was too hot to hold, so it was reasonably foreseeable that she would be forced to remove the lid and lean forward to sip from the cup, and that the alleged defect proximately caused her second-degree burns.

While the facts between Liebeck and Shih are similar – the outcomes are not.

The key to this case is the inconsistency of Plaintiff’s claims. In opposing the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Starbucks, the Plaintiff claimed that her tea order was too hot, and a sleeve should have been used rather than double cups. However, the court rejected this argument and noted that the tea was not too hot to transport from the coffee-counter to the table. Further, the court was not persuaded by Plaintiff’s claim that the cup’s fullness and the lack of a sleeve required her to remove the lid and lean forward into the cup, thereby making it reasonably foreseeable that she would lose her balance and the tea would spill on her.

The appellate court upheld the trial court’s order to grant Starbucks’ Motion for Summary Judgment basing their decision on the logic that (1) Starbucks did not have a duty to warn the Plaintiff about the dangers of hot beverages, and (2) because there was a lack of evidence that her drink’s fullness caused her injuries.

In the end, Plaintiff was out of luck. On the bright side, a new generation finally has its own Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, and for tea enthusiasts who love the sight of a cup filled with tea to the brim, you can thank the California courts for shutting Plaintiff’s case down.

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