URBANA – A University of Illinois graduate burned by hot tea at a Campustown Starbucks will not be getting relief in court for her injuries.
Champaign County Judge Michael Jones on Wednesday dismissed a four-count suit filed by Mindy Paik, 25, of Carol Stream against Starbucks Coffee Co. in connection with first- and second-degree burns she received on her thighs Dec. 9, 2007, at the Starbucks at 501 E. Green St., C.
The facts of the suit were that Paik went to the shop to study and purchased a large hot tea. According to her deposition, she wasn't sure if the lid on the drink was securely in place. She took the drink to a table that she determined was wobbly. Getting up to change tables five to 10 minutes later, the table was jostled and the still-hot drink spilled on to her legs, burning them. She wasn't certain if she or another customer bumped the table in the crowded business.
In the suit, Urbana attorney Pete Borich claimed that Starbucks was negligent in serving tea that was too hot, that Starbucks should have known the wobbly table could cause hot beverages to spill, that the business should have served the tea in a double cup, rather than a single cup, and that Starbucks should have secured the plastic lid.
Hinsdale attorney Andy Miller, representing Starbucks, argued that Paik had presented no expert testimony to support her claim that the tea was "unreasonably or dangerously" hot nor had she presented any evidence to suggest the tea brewer wasn't functioning properly.
Miller argued that Starbucks has no control over the internal controls of the tea brewer. As for the tables, Miller said the business regularly checked them and removed wobbly tables from the customer area.
Borich argued that the business customarily put lids on their beverages and "double cupped" them, the latter helping to prevent tipping but didn't do either of those things for Paik.
Jones interrupted the attorneys with questions during their arguments.
"What are they to do if people want hot tea? Not sell it in case somebody might spill it?" he asked Borich. "What do I do with (Starbucks') affidavit that says there's no problem with the tables?"
Borich said he couldn't answer the first question and responded to the second that a jury should be allowed to decide if it was reasonable to believe that .
"This is the kind of case where the court has to be careful to not rule impulsively. Everyone has heard of the McDonald's coffee case that became fodder for late night comedians," Jones said.
Addressing the counts, Jones said it was "pretty speculative" to assert that two cups versus one makes a drink less likely to tip over. As for the wobbly table, Jones said, Starbucks had affidavits saying they made efforts to check them regularly.
Regarding the lid, Jones noted that if Paik had taken it off to add sugar to her drink, then Starbucks wouldn't be responsible. And he questioned why, if she knew it wasn't properly secured, she didn't just put it on herself.
"It seems to me if you're aware of a condition and choose to do nothing for five to 10 minutes ... that can't be the proximate cause," he said.
The most "troubling issue," he said, was whether Starbucks was responsible for selling tea that was "unreasonably and dangerously hot."
Noting Paik sustained serious burns that no doubt caused her great pain and suffering, Jones said he had no evidence about what the temperature of the tea was that day or what temperature it would take to cause burns as severe as she suffered.
"As a matter of law I find the fact that a hot beverage could burn you if you pour it on your skin does not stand for the proposition that it's unreasonably and dangerously hot," he said.
After the hearing, Borich conceded he had an uphill battle to get the case past summary judgment to trial because the experts he retained to address the issues of temperature and burns were not favorable to his client.
Borich filed the suit in December 2008 and sought damages in excess of $50,000. While his client has substantially healed, Borich said, she does have some permanent scarring from the burns. She was not present for the hearing.