Illinois Civil Justice League: Another Cup of Joe

March 31, 2005

Another Cup of Joe

The McDonald's Coffee case is already an infamous piece of American history. In 1992, a New Mexico retiree spilled a cup of McDonalds coffee in her lap and ended up being awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages (later reduced to $480,000).

This case might have been on the minds of a Southern Illinois University student and her lawyer when they filed suit against Starbucks, on the campus of SIU-Edwardsville, in Madison County court.

The student, Molly Alter of Edwardsville, claim that the coffee she was served at Starbucks was in a defective cup and burned her hands. However, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Circuit Judge George Moran dismissed the coffee lawsuit, granting the same protections and immunity to Starbucks that the University receives as a state entity.

According to the Post-Dispatch:

Alter, a student in the university's graduate program in metalsmithing, alleged that her hands were burned on Dec. 3, 2003, when the cup crumbled. She contended that she was unable to complete her class work for the semester.

Her attorney, Matthew Marlen, said his client had made a "pretty good recovery" and was back in school.

The Court of Claims is the proper venue for the case," Moran wrote in his court order, referring to the forum set up by the state of Illinois to resolve all claims against state entities.

"We're disappointed because my argument had been that we were not suing the state," Marlen said. "We were not suing SIUE. We were suing Starbucks and there was no indication the university operated or had anything to do with Starbucks other than it granted them a right to operate on the campus."

Since 1992, this case has been hotly debated (no pun intended) amongst proponents and opponents of legal reform (check out a fine debate presented on A similar cases is even being litigated in Russia of all places, however the plaintiff is only claiming $3,514 in damages ($14 in healthcare costs and $3,500 of "moral damage").

However, if you thought this was the first time a Southern Illinois attorney had thought to sue over a cup of coffee - you'd be wrong. In January 2001, the Murphysboro (IL) McDonald's owner, Short Enterprises, was named in a lawsuit with Wal-Mart, a cup manufacturer, and the plaintiff's own mother, in a case brought by attorney Eric Long.

According to the Washington Post:

Teresa Reed claims in the lawsuit against Short Enterprises, owner of the Murphysboro McDonald's, that a cup of coffee she bought at the drive-through window in 1998 spilled and scalded her ankle, allegedly leaving a permanent scar.

Reed said the coffee, which the suit alleged was "served at a temperature too hot for consumption and hot enough to scald the human body," spilled and burned her after she placed it in a cup holder in her mother's car.

The suit also accuses Reed's mother of negligence, saying Carol Sanders "owed a duty of care for the safety of others riding in her vehicle."


Blogger Amy Allen said...

Interesting post.
Good luck in your aldermanic race-on Tuesday.

3:31 PM  

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