Claim Against Starbucks For Hot Tea Rejected

A federal appeals court has upheld the exclusion of plaintiffs' experts in a design defect case alleging Starbucks Coffee Co.'s tea/coffee cup design caused severe burns to an elderly customer. See Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co., No. 09-4943 (2d Cir. 11/2/10).

Plaintiff alleged she purchased a venti-sized cup of tea, served double-cupped and lidded. She had difficulty removing the lid, and in the course of her attempts to pry it off, she alleged that the tea spilled onto her left leg, causing severe burns.

In support of her design defect claim, she presented the reports of four experts. The District Court for the Southern District of New York excluded the experts under Daubert and granted the coffee maker summary judgment.

The Second Circuit unanimously agreed that proof from Moltner's these design defect experts failed to meet the standards of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.  As the district court discussed, and the court of appeals affirmed, the first (Diller) report was unreliable because its conclusions were conclusory, devoid of any factual or analytical basis, and this report thus did not demonstrate a sufficient level of intellectual rigor. The second (Dr. Gerstman) report likewise was unreliable because it does not state the basis or analysis from which its conclusions were derived.  Third, the (Anders) report was the product of a method of testing that was insufficiently reliable and lacked “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.” The report by a fourth expert (DiMaria), which supported Moltner's negligence claim, was properly barred because it would not assist the jury in determining whether Starbucks breached its duty of care to the plaintiff.

We note this decision not so much for the Daubert analysis (which is not lengthy), but because it strikes us as another good example of what is wrong with so much product liability litigation today.  An elderly woman with serious injury is a sympathetic plaintiff in front of a jury.  But such a case should never get to a jury. The panel also rejected Moltner’s theory of negligence as infirm as a matter of law under Fung-Yee Ng v. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 764 N.Y.S.2d 183, 183-84 (1st Dep’t 2003) (“‘Double cupping’ is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one’s hand.”).  Products are not defective just because they are capable of being involved in an injury.  Products need not be designed to prevent any injury no matter what the consumer does with the product.   Almost every design choice, including something as simple as double cupping, may have potential impact on the relative risks of injury.   A proper negligence analysis supports the decision to minimize the risk of injuries, yet juries are often incapable of confirming that analysis when confronted with a sympathetic plaintiff.  And while they should, juries confronted with a seriously injured plaintiff may find it difficult to recognize the proper role of personal responsibility in cases like this: regardless of the design of the cup or lid, when you are dealing with a very hot beverage, you must exercise precaution; it's a matter of common sense, common knowledge, common awareness. Hence the need for rules keeping out junk science and the need for courts to grant summary judgment.