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Gail Guay vs. Starbucks Coffee Company


Statement of the Case

This arbitration arose from a May 30, 1998 incident when the claimant sustained a painful second-degree burn in the area of her left inside ankle and upon her lower left front skin. The burns clearly resulted from a very brief exposure of but a few seconds duration at the injury site by the spillage of hot coffee served at a temperature of between 175 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit. The product had been sold by the respondent corporation a few moments earlier and delivered over in a sturdy paper container to the claimant.

The Facts and Rulings

For whatever reason, this matter was extremely difficult factually. The law in Massachusetts with respect to the Uniform Commercial Code is that in determining liability for a breach of warranty of merchantability, G.L. 106, Section 2-314(2)(c) the focus is to be placed upon what are the reasonable expectations for the purchaser of a consummate. Of course, the customer is to expect heat in the coffee and coffee is not defective simply because it is hot or because it is very hot, or even if it is too hot to immediately ingest it. Rather the issue whether the product as it is sold in its container is a product that carries a foreseeable risk of injury; i.e. if the harm causing characteristic would not have been expected or anticipated by the ordinary reasonable consumer.

With reference to the issue of negligence, the law in Massachusetts permits an inference to be drawn by the fact-finder if the incident is of a kind that does not ordinarily occur unless a respondent was negligent and where other reasonable causes including activities of the petitioner are, under all the circumstances, not the proximate cause. Also, in Massachusetts, by statute, a plaintiff is presumed to be in the exercise of due care and the burden is upon a defendant to establish otherwise.

I am satisfied from the evidence that Starbucks brewed its coffee pursuant to an accepted industry-wide standard that coffee is brewed in water that has been brought to 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit and thereafter held it for sale to its customers (and this claimant) at a temperature of approximately 180 degrees.

From the evidence, the undersigned has concluded that the coffee container has a printed warning that the contents are hot but the evidence does not support that the cup as delivered contained an addition warning wrapper or that any tray or like carrier was offered or available. However, the issue of warning suitability is not the determining factor in this case. What would any additional warning accomplish? Perhaps one asserting this coffee was unusually hot? Perhaps a statement that coffee served at 175 to 185 degrees is hot enough to cause a second-degree burn upon contact. Perhaps if a paper carrying tray and the additional wrapper had been used, that would have been sufficient. The evidence, however, makes plain that this claimant was aware the product was very hot.

I am further satisfied that the evidence supports the conclusion of the undersigned that these two burns, one the size of a half-dollar, and the other the size of a dime, resulted in a painful second degree blistering in just a few seconds and caused residual scarring.

The undersigned did not find the testimony of the petitioner in regard to the injury sustained sufficient to establish by a fair preponderance of the evidence, the duration and severity of discomfort claimed. Lastly, I conclude that the claimant was at least 75% negligent.


After three days of hearing and after consideration of all of the evidence, I award judgment to the defendant Starbucks Coffee Company in this action.

Respectfully Submitted
Hon. John T. Ronan
Ronan Arbitration Services



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