Defending the Coffee Burn Suit
by Christian Stegmaier
In the food service setting, 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. Further, 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 within a recently published Consumer Reports.
In our case, the client ultimately won summary judgment. The secret of our success was obtaining an expert able to inspect the coffee maker in question and conclude there was nothing defective in its operation or its product. Further, he was able to opine on the proper industry standards concerning coffee temperatures – our client’s coffee was held in an urn, which was measured to be approximately 170 degrees Fahrenheit. With no evidence propounded by the plaintiff to counter our arguments, the federal judge dismissed the case against our client.
If faced with a similar claim, take the steps necessary to have your coffee maker inspected as soon as possible to determine the brewing and holding temperatures. Folks who can likely undertake this inspection include representatives from the coffee maker’s manufacturer or an independent expert (there are many folks making a living by knowing a lot about coffee making). 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 have full-time coffee experts, as well as extensive protocols and guidelines concerning coffee service, which proved invaluable to our defense.
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.
This post does not constitue the giving of legal advice. For advice on this topic, contact counsel in your jurisdiction to discuss the same.