In a Wake County courtroom Friday, jurors could settle the case against a $74 billion coffeehouse giant – a closely watched lawsuit that hinges on whether Starbucks carelessly served a Venti-sized beverage in a sleeveless cup with an ill-fitting lid, triggering lap burns, surgery and trauma for a Raleigh police officer.
The story of Matthew Kohr and his free cup of coffee gone wrong is making international headlines, drawing interest in England, Canada and as far away nationally as Seattle, where readers wait to learn what Kohr gains: $750,000 or nothing.
On Thursday, the trial’s third day, Kohr’s wife, Melanie, took the stand and described her husband under a “black cloud” after third-degree burns aggravated his Crohn’s disease. She testified that she took on all household chores and child-care duties, lost their formerly healthy social and sexual life, and watched her husband lose interest in everything.
“It was the most challenging period of my life,” she said, wiping tears.
But jurors will also weigh a heavy counterpunch from Starbucks attorneys, who argue against any negligence. Kohr, 44, has struggled with Crohn’s for more than a decade and became what his doctor described as “steroid dependent.” He self-medicated with prednisone beyond his physician’s comfort level, long using a drug whose side effects can include depression and emotional instability.
On cross-examination, Raleigh gastroenterologist Dr. Charles Barish said he had tried to wean Kohr off prednisone since 1997.
‘A regular guy’
Both Kohr’s wife and doctor said that the police lieutenant had managed his life and disease ably for years. It would flare up and cause stomach pain, they said, but always subside with treatment. Kohr was an avid runner who also took an active role in his children’s horseback riding lessons and baseball practices.
“He’s a regular guy,” his wife said Thursday.
That changed after the spill in January 2012, which a fellow Raleigh officer described earlier this week as looking like the cup’s lid popped off like a jack-in-the-box. But Kohr did not immediately seek medical attention. He first drove his police car from the Peace Street Starbucks to the police garage, then drove his truck home to Garner, where his wife photographed his wound, according to testimony this week.
Despite the pain, Melanie Kohr said, her husband coped with the burn for the first week. But stomach pain soon followed, and his condition declined.
From the witness stand Thursday, Barish said third-degree burns to Kohr’s inner thigh area aggravated his Crohn’s disease and made surgery necessary. Before the hot coffee, Barish said, Kohr had responded well to treatment and had bounced back from the Crohn’s flare-ups that had long plagued him.
After the incident, Barish said, “I couldn’t do anything to fix him.”
A variety of drugs after the surgery, including antidepressants, helped fuel his decline, both doctor and wife testified.
“He was pitiful,” Barish said. “He was depressed and weeping and not the Matthew Kohr I knew.”
Barish said Kohr’s wife called his office to report her husband sat around doing nothing following his surgery, telling her to look at his “shakes” when he wasn’t shaking at all.
But on cross-examination from Starbucks lawyers, Barish talked of his preference that patients not be on prednisone, which Kohr often took on his own. Barish also said that Kohr would have needed surgery eventually, as do most Crohn’s patients. He just didn’t know when.
On Friday, after closing arguments, jurors will begin sorting through it all, weighing the complexities of fault and reward.