Florida woman wins $100,000 suing Starbucks for hot coffee — and other food-related lawsuits

A Florida woman got a $ 100,000 payday this week, after she spilled a Starbucks SBUX, +3.09%   coffee on herself and said she suffered first- and second-degree burns.

The incident happened in 2014, when Joanne Mogavero visited a Starbucks in Jacksonville, Fla., and ordered a Venti-sized coffee. The lid popped off, and the coffee burned her midsection.

A jury on Wednesday in Duval County circuit court determined Starbucks should pay the woman $ 100,000 in damages, including $ 85,000 for pain and suffering.

“As we said in trial, we stand behind our store partners (employees) in this case and maintain that they did nothing wrong,” a Starbucks spokeswoman told MarketWatch. “We’re considering an appeal.”

This isn’t the first food-related lawsuit in recent years. It isn’t even the first in retaliation for a hot-coffee related injury.

A man in Worcester, Mass., in March filed lawsuits against more than 20 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises in Eastern and Central Massachusetts alleging they misled him about the topping on his bagel.

He ordered butter and, he alleges, he got a butter substitute, according to the Boston Globe. In a previous Boston Globe inquiry — before this man filed this lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court, Mass. against Dunkin’ Donuts — he told the paper that stores offer butter packets when customers ask for it on the side; however, they said the stores don’t keep butter at room temperature for food safety reasons, so they use an easily-spreadable substitute for bagels or pastries.

“We have been receiving lots of comments praising the lawsuit,” Shapiro told MarketWatch in an email. “It is a small issue in the great scale of things, but at the same time, it was important to correct the practice of misleading consumers by providing a substitute even when butter is ordered without disclosing that this was being done.”

(A spokeswoman for Dunkin’ Donuts told MarketWatch, “We are aware of the lawsuit. The majority of Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants in Massachusetts carry both individual whipped butter packets, and a butter-substitute vegetable spread.”)

Last year, a woman in Chicago sued Starbucks Corp. for putting too much ice in its iced beverages. A federal judge later threw the case out, saying no reasonable consumer could be deceived by the company’s beverage labeling.

In a separate case, though, some consumers alleged Starbucks was underfilling its lattes by about 25%. A federal judge rejected Starbucks’s efforts to dismiss that complaint. Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of that case. However, Starbucks spokeswoman previously told MarketWatch both suits were “frivolous and without merit.” “If a customer is not satisfied with their beverage preparation, we will gladly remake it,” she said.

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Other food companies have faced lawsuits in the past about food volume, temperature and advertising. The grocery chain Whole Foods WFM, +0.07% saw a dip in sales growth in 2015 after admitting it had mislabeled some freshly-packaged foods including vegetable platters and chicken tenders in New York City, charging customers $ 1 to nearly $ 15 more than they should have been charged per item. In a video at the time, the company apologized and called the mislabeling an error. The company settled with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs for $ 500,000.

In perhaps one of the most infamous cases of its kind, a 79-year-old woman was awarded $ 2.9 million by a jury in 1994 after spilling hot McDonald’s MCD, +1.07% coffee on herself and suffering third-degree burns two years earlier. What the media hoopla at the time missed: The amount was later lowered to around $ 500,000.

In 2003, a federal judge dismissed another lawsuit against McDonald’s; two teenagers sued the company when they became obese after eating its food.

And a man in 1994 sued beer company Anheuser-Busch BUD, +1.19% for its “misleading” advertisements about fantasies coming to life, which he said “caused him physical and mental injury, emotional distress and financial loss.” The Michigan Court of Appeals threw the case out.

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Cases such as these may appear opportunistic, they highlight times consumers may feel misled or ripped off — even in small ways, said Susan Schneider, a law professor and the director of the Agricultural and Food Law program at the University of Arkansas School of Law. “That’s a way of keeping an industry honest so they don’t get by with just nickeling and diming people and making a lot of money on it,” she said.

Sometimes these cases — which sometimes create more media buzz than legal wins for the plaintiffs — do lead to policy changes, as in the case of Whole Foods, which said any consumer who finds a discrepancy in the way a food is weighed can receive it for free. And Starbucks customers, for example, may now be more likely to ask for less ice in their drinks, Schneider said.

Of course, law firms may have their eye on attorney fees and notoriety when bringing class-action suits against massive food and beverage companies, more so than the small amounts of money they can win for their clients, Schneider said.

For the food industry, there could be some significant drawbacks from filing the suits at all, said Michael Roberts, the executive director of the Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy at UCLA Law School.

Because there really are problems with labeling in the food industry, including food fraud, filing a suit that is seen as frivolous could actually hurt concerned consumers in the long run. Class action lawsuits are one of few tools at consumers’ disposal, and they shouldn’t use that option too frequently, he said. “When you get the next class-action suit for something really important, consumers may be looking at that with a degree of cynicism and not give it the credit it deserves.”

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