Starbucks not liable for spilled coffee injury, but people keep suing

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Meritless lawsuits, like those over the temperature of the coffee you serve, still cost your business money. Prepare yourself for meritless lawsuits with the proper insurance policy.
A man in a car spills coffee on himself.

Hot coffee lawsuits: apparently, they are still a thing. If your restaurant is like most food businesses and serves piping hot coffee all day, every day – that is some discouraging news. After all, you can't get by with lukewarm coffee – no one forks over their dollars for that.

According to Insurance Journal, Starbucks was the unlucky target of one recent coffee conundrum. The report states a North Carolina police officer spilled a cup of hot Starbucks coffee in his lap, which scorched his thighs and allegedly triggered his Crohn's disease, a chronic condition that affects the lining of the digestive tract and can be exacerbated by stress. The officer had to have surgery to remove part of his intestine, so he sued Starbucks over the debacle for $750,000 in damages.

The report notes that the jury ruled that Starbucks wasn't liable for damages, which is good news for small businesses, even though a few related lawsuits have been decided in favor of the customer. Such a ruling might, however, discourage customers from filing meritless lawsuits in the future. Let's explore some other implications of this case.

No liability doesn't mean no cost

Keep in mind that a dismissed lawsuit doesn't necessarily spare your bank account. Any time you have to appear in court for a civil claim, you may be responsible for paying:

  • Legal defense fees
  • Docket fees
  • Other administrative costs

In fact, according to a report by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform [PDF], small businesses pay an average of $2,000 to $5,000 in attorney's fees alone just to combat a frivolous lawsuit. Legal defense fees may be small change to a behemoth like Starbucks, but for small restaurant or coffee shop owners, that price tag may be significant.

Good thing depleting your savings isn't the only way to handle unexpected legal bills.

Insurance is a lifeline for both viable and meritless lawsuits

You may already know that general liability insurance can address third-party lawsuits over the bodily harm your food or beverages caused. But did you know it helps out even when you're not liable for damages?

That's because most general liability policies offer coverage for legal defense fees, even when the lawsuit is baseless. So that pesky $5,000 in defense costs you may rack up just by responding to a meritless claim? Your policy may cover the bill so you don't have to pay out of pocket.

Of course, if the lawsuit does have merit, your coverage may also help pay for:

  • Settlements
  • Judgments
  • Court costs

Though the Starbucks lawsuit may discourage disgruntled guests from pursuing a thin case against your restaurant or cafe, meritless lawsuits are far from being a relic of a litigation-happy past. People sue for many reasons, and some may not realize just how weak their case is until the jury votes.

That is to say, you can't predict human behavior, so it's best to shore up your defenses just in case. Part of that planning should include carrying adequate insurance, though the hope is that you won't have to use it.

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