America is coffee addicted. That fact is plainly evident by the sheer numbers of food service establishments and other retailers selling and serving it.
Of course, with more coffee being served, the greater the chances are for customer claims involving accidents, including alleged coffee burns. Within recent years, we have defended many such claims. We have found that many, if not most, coffee burn lawsuits are very much defensible.
In the food service setting, most coffee is customarily served and intended to be consumed as a hot beverage. Accordingly, to recover in a coffee burn lawsuit, a plaintiff typically must present evidence that the coffee served by a defendant food service operator was defective or unreasonably dangerous by virtue of being hotter than it should have been.
To show the coffee was hotter than it should have been, a plaintiff must demonstrate the beverage exceeded reasonable or customary temperatures.
In the absence of such a showing, the coffee cannot be found to have been defective.
Merely making the conclusory allegation that the coffee was “too hot” is not sufficient for purposes of proving a case. Courts from around the country have held that evidence of burns alone does not establish that the coffee at issue exceeded acceptable temperatures.
Many courts have examined what constitutes the “industry standard” for temperatures of coffee.
In New York, a court held a plaintiff failed to show that coffee served between 180 and 190 degrees Fahrenheit exceeds industry standards.
In Indiana, a federal district judge concluded the industry standard for coffee temperature is between 170 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Minnesota, a court ruled coffee brewed at 190 degrees and held at 180 degrees is within industry standards.
These judicial determinations are supported by the fact that most home coffee machines hold coffee for serving at temperatures between 170 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, coffee held for serving at a temperature lower than 170 degrees Fahrenheit has been found too cool for some palettes, as reported by Consumer Reports.
In defending a litigated case, the secret to success is obtaining an expert knowledgeable about commercial grade appliances who is able to inspect the coffee maker in question and conclude there was nothing defective in its operation or its product. Folks who can undertake this inspection and potentially provide testimony include representatives from the coffee maker’s manufacturer or an independent expert with a track record of successfully appearing in similar cases.
Further, an hospitality expert should likely be retained to opine on the proper industry standards concerning coffee brewing and holding temperatures. Franchisees should also contact their franchisors to determine if there is an in-house quality assurance expert who can assist. We learned in our case that large franchisors often consult or employ full-time coffee experts who are very skilled in the art and science of coffee. As well, these franchisors often have have extensive protocols and guidelines concerning coffee service, which can help guide your defense.
If put on notice of a coffee burn claim, take the steps necessary to have your coffee maker inspected as soon as possible to determine the brewing and holding temperatures. Time is often of the essence in claims like this concerning preservation of evidence, so get to work with an inspection as soon as you are on notice of a claim
Of course, to do what you can to prevent these claims from arising, it goes without saying that you should make sure your establishment always follows the manufacturer’s and in-house expert’s guidelines concerning the proper preparation and service of coffee. Additionally, staff should regularly inspect coffee-making equipment to ensure its safe operation and have it fixed as soon as possible if found to be making coffee at temperatures that are too high.
Check out the July episode of The Explainer, my web series on South Carolina law: