News & Blog

Second Circuit Cools Off Hot Tea Claim

November 3, 2010 • Posted By Joseph A. French • Trial Practice

During jury selection many prospective jurors often raise the issue of the large award a woman won years ago by suing McDonalds after she spilled hot coffee and scalded herself. This past week, however, the Second Circuit appears to have iced a hot tea claim brought in Federal Court against Starbucks. Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Company, 09-4943. CV (2d. Cir. 2010).

In 2008, plaintiff Rachel Moltner claimed that after she purchased a "venti" hot tea from Starbucks she spilled hot tea on her foot following a struggle with the cup's lid. A skin graft was required for her foot. Starbucks was awarded summary judgment by U.S.D.J. Judge Preska, who wrote in her decision that "no reasonable fact finder could conclude that the tea's 190 F temperature" could have surprised plaintiff. Judge Preska also decided to deny a remand to state court. On plaintiff's appeal, the Second Circuit ruled that the "removal clock does not start to run until the plaintiff serves the defendant with a paper that explicitly specifies the amount of monetary damage sought." Thus, it appears that once defense counsel learned plaintiff sought $3.0 million, Starbucks knew that the case would qualify for removal to federal court. Having had the case removed, Starbucks eventually secured the favorable summary judgment decision thus avoiding potential headlines had it been the subject of an excessive McDonalds-type verdict.

While the Court ruled that the hot temperature should not have surprised plaintiff, the decision will no doubt surprise many attorneys and would-be litigants who will now need to show that a beverage was so excessively hot that it went well beyond what a customer might have expected when the purchase was made. We expect the decision may eventually chill similar claims.