Starbucks not liable for spilled coffee that burned officer, jury says

North Carolina police officer loses case against Starbucks over spilled coffee

Police Sgt. Matthew Kohr got a cup of coffee from his usual barista, Ali, one day in January 2012 at Starbucks Store No. 8373 in the North Carolina capital.

The venti-size coffee blend — Kohr says Ali called it "something special" — was hot. It spilled into the officer's lap. His inner thigh was scalded, as was the tip of his penis, he later said.

A lawsuit ensued.

On Monday morning, Kohr sat in a downtown courtroom with his arm around his wife, Melanie, while a jury deliberated whether the giant $57-billion coffee corporation was legally liable for the officer's injuries.

Kohr, 44, a tall, wavy-haired officer who is now a lieutenant, contended that his burns were so severe that they left him clinically depressed, anxious, sleep-deprived and unable to enjoy everyday life. The burns also resulted in what Kohr's lawsuit called "loss of consortium" with his wife.

"Starbucks delivered a cup of coffee that robbed Matt Kohr of control of his life," the officer's lawyer, Daniel H. Johnson, told a jury of eight men and four women Friday, according to news reports.

The officer blamed a faulty lid and said Ali failed to provide a protective cardboard sleeve. The lid popped off, Kohr said, and drenched his police trousers with scalding coffee.

"I wanted to beat my chest and scream," Kohr testified. "But the place was full of people."

His lawsuit sought a minimum of $10,000 and up to $750,000 for what he said were third-degree burns.

Kohr's trip to court has invited comparisons to the infamous McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit that became, for some critics, an emblem of an overly litigious society.

After a 79-year-old woman in New Mexico said she was scalded by McDonald's coffee in 1992, a jury awarded her $2.9 million in compensatory and punitive damages — reduced by courts to $640,000. The two sides later reached a secret settlement.

Kohr's lawsuit accused Starbucks of "allowing its employees, including Ali, to produce and serve products that had not been tested for safety; and creating … a service environment in which Ali was unable to recognize both a faulty cup and a defective or improper lid."

According to his lawsuit, he rushed into the coffee shop bathroom, where a large burn and blisters had already formed on his inner thigh. His partner poured cold water on the wound to no effect, the lawsuit said.

A Starbucks lawyer, Tricia M. Derr, pointed out that Kohr drove his police car from Starbucks to a police lot and then drove his truck home, where his wife photographed his injury. She said he waited almost 2 1/2 hours to seek medical attention.

"Lawsuit never crossed my mind that day," Kohr said on the stand. "Did it later? Yes."

The burned tissue on Kohr's inner thigh turned black, and puss oozed from parts of the wound, according to the lawsuit.

Starbucks said its coffee is served with an "extremely hot" warning on each cup. Of more than 4 billion cups served each year, it said, fewer than 60 damage claims have been filed.

Perhaps, Derr suggested, it was Kohr who was responsible for spilling the coffee.

"How does someone who knows their coffee is hot, who has had 50 cups of free coffee in the last two months, how does that person spill their coffee?" she asked in court.

Starbucks also argued that Kohr's depression could have been caused by his use of the steroid prednisone to treat his Crohn's disease, an inflammatory bowel condition. The officer's doctor testified that Kohr had become "steroid dependent."

After nearly a week of testimony, the jury took four hours Friday to weigh the merits of the case. Afterward, the foreman told Judge Donald W. Stephens the jury was stuck at 11 to 1 — he didn't say which way. The judge ordered jurors to keep trying Monday.

Meanwhile, the two sides agreed to accept any verdict reached by at least 10 jurors. Duly informed, the jury deliberated for just 15 minutes or so Monday before returning with a 10-2 verdict in favor of Starbucks.

Kohr hugged his wife, and the couple soon left the courtroom with their lawyer. Johnson, the officer's attorney, said Kohr would have no comment.

"We're disappointed, of course," Johnson said. "We appreciate the jury's service and respect their decision."

A spokeswoman for Starbucks said in a statement: "We are pleased with the jury's decision as we believe our partners [employees] did nothing wrong. The safety of our customers and partners will continue to be our top priority."

Twitter: @davidzucchino

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
66°