The Case of the Too Hot Tea

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Starbucks Cup spilled

In the case of Tina Shih v. Starbucks Corporation (8/18/20), the California Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of StarbucksMotion for Summary Judgment finding that Ms. Shih could not prevail on her causes of action for products liability (for “failing to provide adequate warnings”) or negligence (for providing a “defective cup”) because, among other things, any alleged defect in the cup did not cause Ms. Shih’s injuries.

Shih filed this action on a form complaint, alleging Starbucks “provided a defective coffee cup and sleeve that caused the spillage of boiling hot coffee onto [her] thighs.” At her
deposition Shih testified she went to a Starbucks store with her friend, and each of them ordered a cup of hot tea. When the two drinks were ready, Shih retrieved them from the store’s pick-up counter. Each drink had a lid and was “double-cupped,” meaning
the cup containing the hot tea was inserted into a second empty cup. Neither drink, however, had a sleeve around the outer cup.

When Shih picked up the drinks, she noticed they were “extremely hot.” Nevertheless, she slowly carried the drinks, one in each hand, to a table in the store and set them down. Shih sat in a chair at the table, started talking with her friend, and
removed the lid on her drink. Shih then attempted, while seated, to bend forward and take a sip from the open cup in front of her. To accomplish this, Shih “tried to push the chair a little bit but the chair got pushed out more than [she] anticipated.” Shih
“grabbed onto the table” to maintain her balance, which caused her drink to spill.

Wait, what?  That’s not how we envisioned it.  I thought this was about a defective cup?

The court ruled that Shih failed to show there was a triable issue of material fact regarding whether Starbucks had a duty to warn of risks associated with the cup of tea, that Shih could not prove the cup of tea had a manufacturing defect because Starbucks’
policy about when cups should include sleeves was “about reducing waste and customer preference, not about a manufacturing design,” and that neither the absence of a cup sleeve nor the high level of tea in the cup was a cause of Shih’s injuries.

Then, Ms. Shih’s case came apart with the following explanation.

The absence of a sleeve on the cup and presence of tea filled to the top of the cup arguably were causes-in-fact of Shih’s injuries. Shih argues that, “but for” the fact the cup was “too hot and too full” to hold (although she was able to hold the cup and carry it to the table), Shih would not have “attempt[ed] to sip the water from the cup” in the manner she did. Instead, Shih presumably would have raised the cup to her mouth, and therefore would not have leaned forward, would not have moved the chair out from under her, would not have lost her balance, would not have grabbed the table, and would not have knocked her cup off the table and spilled hot tea on herself.

Here, the court noted,

But that’s a lot of “would not haves,” and because of that the alleged defects in the drink were “too remotely connected with [the plaintiff’s] injuries to constitute their legal cause.”

Here, the Court of Appeals reached back to pull out an example of what “legal” or “proximate” cause means:

For example, in Novak, supra, 22 Cal.App.5th 189 the tires of a car in which the decedent was a passenger blew out, causing an accident. (Id. at pp. 192-193.) The decedent survived the accident, but his injuries required him to use a motorized scooter
for mobility. Six years later he died after a car struck him while he was on the scooter in a crosswalk. (Id. at p. 193.) The decedent’s daughter sought to hold the tire manufacturer liable for his death. The court in Novak held that, even assuming the
defendant’s failure to warn about risks in the tires “set in motion a series of events that led to [the decedent’s] death and was, thus, a ‘cause in fact’ of his death,” the “connection between defendants’ conduct and the injury suffered is too attenuated to show the later accident to be within the scope of the risk created by defendants’ conduct.” (Id. at pp. 196-197.)

The same principle applies here.

Then, the court provided some unintended guidance to other potential Plaintiffs when it stated:

To be sure, the absence of a cup sleeve may have increased the likelihood of certain other risks. For example, had Shih burned her hand when she touched the cup or dropped the cup because it was too hot for her to hold, Shih might have been able
to allege and show that any injuries she may have suffered were proximately caused by the absence of a sleeve. But that is not what happened.

Finally, the court noted:

Shih argues whether the alleged defects in the cup were a cause of her injuries is a question for the jury. “‘Ordinarily, proximate cause is a question of fact which cannot be decided as a matter of law. . . . Nevertheless, where the facts are such that the only reasonable conclusion is an absence of causation, the question is one of law, not of fact.’” (State Dept. of State Hospitals v. Superior Court, supra, 61 Cal.4th at p. 353; see Modisette v. Apple Inc. (2018), supra, 30 Cal.App.5th at p. 152; Novak, supra, 22 Cal.App.5th at p. 197.) Here, even resolving all disputed factual issues and making all reasonable inferences in Shih’s favor, Shih’s undisputed testimony showed that the events leading to the tea
spill were, as a matter of law, too remote from the alleged defects in the cup for Shih to prove proximate causation.  And, yes, law school junkies, the court even cited to:  Palsgraf v. Long Island R.R. Co. (1928) 248 N.Y. 339, 339.

Case over.  The take away?  Be sure that the “defect” you are claiming actually was the factual and the “legal” cause of your injuries, that is, if you want to win.

Eric Papp, Esq.

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