Wake County

Starbucks not liable in police coffee-spill case, jury decides

Jury finds Starbucks not negligent in case where a Raleigh police officer spilled coffee on himself.

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At the start of the Starbucks hot-coffee trial, it didn’t seem that Matthew Kohr had a shot.

The first reaction from spectators everywhere was an eye-rolling groan. Another frivolous lawsuit. Can this man even spell personal responsibility?

But the mood shifted after a day, especially if you saw the third-degree burn photographs or heard Melanie Kohr describe her police-lieutenant husband turned into a drugged-out wreck.

In the end, jurors sided with the coffee giant and gave Kohr nothing. Not $750,000, which he sought. Not even 75 cents.

But it took them 5.5 hours over two days. They never came to a unanimous vote; attorneys for both sides in the civil trial agreed to accept the 10-2 verdict for Starbucks. Kohr gained one supporter, then another. I think the jurors’ wrangling shows this case turned into more than a punch line.

“We thank everyone for their support,” Kohr said Friday. “We look forward to putting this behind us and moving forward.”

So many elements helped make Kohr’s lawsuit into a spectacle. He got the coffee for free. He spilled it on his crotch. He drove home and took pictures before getting medical care. He sued a $74 billion corporation over a gift. I got emails from the Nancy Grace show and a radio program in Los Angeles. I’ll bet the Kohr family got a ton more.

The reason for the worldwide interest: Kohr’s case had a steamer trunk full of complications. Kohr had Crohn’s disease. He’d managed it for more than a decade. But he did so on a steady diet of steroids. His doctor said the coffee injury aggravated it. But he likely would have needed surgery someday without the spill.

And what about Starbucks? The coffeehouse gave him a venti (its largest cup) when he asked for a small. It didn’t give him a sleeve, violating its own policy. But Kohr took his sleeveless cup and didn’t complain. Lids popped off Starbucks cups and burned other people around the country, but did Starbucks cause the lid popping in Kohr’s case?

The jury said no.

“We are pleased with the jury's decision as we believe our partners (employees) did nothing wrong,” wrote a Starbucks spokeswoman in an email. “The safety of our customers and partners will continue to be our top priority.”

Wherever you cast blame in this case, Kohr clearly suffered. People tend to shrug off other people’s misery, especially if they want money for it. But once it happens to them, they just want somebody to listen and understand.

All week, I couldn’t help but think of Liebeck v. McDonald’s, the celebrated coffee case of 1994, in which a jury awarded $2.86 million to a 79-year-old customer burned by her java. That case involved the coffee’s 180-degree temperature, not the lid or the sleeve. But it famously got described as “the poster child of excessive lawsuits.”

Did that case enter into anybody else’s mind? Would Kohr have fared better if he burned himself at a fondue restaurant?

Having watched it for a week, I don’t think this was frivolous or excessive. It got decided by attentive and patient jurors rather than online comments. And even though Starbucks came out the winner, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the stores offer a new line of coffee cup, featuring a tighter-fitting lid.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818;

Twitter: @joshshaffer08

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