Spilling the Tea Can Be Inherently Risky, But Did not Legally Cause Plaintiff’s Injuries in Alleged Product Defect Action

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In Shih v. Starbucks Corporation (August 24, 2020, B299329) the Court of Appeal upheld the Trial Court’s ruling granting summary judgment as the alleged defect in Defendant’s product was not a legal cause of Plaintiff’s injuries.

In Shih, Plaintiff ordered a cup of hot tea while at a Starbucks location. The drink had a lid and was double-cupped, but the drink did not have a sleeve around the outer cup. Plaintiff noticed the drink was “extremely hot” and proceeded to carry her drink to a nearby table. She removed the lid from her drink while sitting at the table and engaged in conversation. Shih bent forward to sip from the drink. Her chair pushed out more than she anticipated and she attempted to grab onto the table in order to maintain balance. This caused Plaintiff’s drink to spill onto her causing second degree burns.

Shih sued Starbucks for products liability and negligence alleging the cup was defective. She argued placing the drink in a double cup instead of a cup with a sleeve was a manufacturing defect. Plaintiff further argued the absence of the sleeve around the cup and the cup being filled to the brim caused her injuries. Starbucks filed a motion for summary judgment on the issue of causation. Starbucks argued Shih could not prevail on her products liability cause of action because Starbucks did not have a duty to warn of obvious dangers associated with a hot cup of tea and the alleged defect in the cup did not cause Shih’s injuries. In addition, Starbucks argued Shih’s negligence cause of action would fail because it was based solely on the allegation Starbucks provided a defective cup.

The Trial Court granted Starbucks’ motion for summary judgment noting Shih failed to show a triable issue of fact as to whether Starbucks had a duty to warn of risks associated with the cup of tea. Further, the Court noted Shih could not prove the tea had a manufacturing defect because Starbucks’ policy regarding when cups should include sleeves was about reducing waste and customer preference not about manufacturing design. The Trial Court found neither the absence of a cup sleeve nor the high level of tea in the cup were the cause of Shih’s injuries. Shih could not prevail on her negligence cause of action for the same reasons.

On appeal, the Court analyzed the causation element of Products Liability and Negligence to determine whether Plaintiff’s injuries were caused by Starbucks. The court noted while “ordinarily proximate cause is a question of fact which cannot be decided as a matter of law. . . Nevertheless, where the facts are such that only a reasonable conclusion is an absence of causation, the question is one of law, not of fact.” (State Dept. of State Hospitals v. Superior Court (2015) 61 Cal.App.4th 339, 353.) In citing to O’Neil v. Crane Co. (2012), 53 Cal.App.4th 335, 348, the Court notes Plaintiff must show the defect in the product was a legal or proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury and the manufacturer is liable only when a defect in its product was a legal cause of injury. To determine if Starbucks was the proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries, the court notes proximate cause has two aspects, (1) cause in fact, and (2) public policy considerations. The Court uses the substantial factor test to determine whether a product defect was a cause in fact injury and the ‘but for’ test governs other situations. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc.(1997) 16 Cal.App.4th 953, 968; State Dept. v. Superior Court, supra, 61 Cal.App.4th at 352.)

Here, the Court of Appeal noted Shih’s argument that “but for” the cup being too hot and full she would not have attempted to drink it in said manner; however, this argument does not create causation on behalf of Starbucks. The alleged defects in the drink were “too remotely connected with Plaintiff’s injuries to constitute their legal cause.” Defendant is not liable for harm when the tortious aspect of the defendant’s conduct – here, the alleged defects in the drink – was of a type that does not generally increase the risk of Plaintiff’s harm. The Court of Appeal opined while it is foreseeable a customer could lose their balance while seated at or rising from a table, the event itself is not within the scope of the risk created by the restaurant’s decision to serve a hot beverage filled to the brim or that does not have a sleeve. While Starbucks’ conduct in serving a full cup of hot tea without a sleeve may have set the series of events in motion, neither the failure to use a cup sleeve nor filling the cup to the brim increased the risk of a customer losing their balance while attempting to execute an unorthodox drinking maneuver.

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. Ultimately, the appellate court upheld the trial court ruling to grant Starbucks’ motion for summary judgment as plaintiff could not meet the causation element of products liability or negligence.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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