Staff Writer

Friday, July 27, 2007

A Wayne man filed suit Thursday against a local Starbucks, claiming his hand was scalded by overly hot tea from an improperly lidded cup.

Antonio Couso and his wife, Lucy, were at a Starbucks on Route 23 in Wayne on March 12, 2006, when the spill occurred, according to the civil suit filed in state Superior Court in Paterson.

Fort Lee lawyer Rosemary Arnold, representing the Cousos, said that "when he went to pick up the cup, the top wasn't on correctly. The top came off.

"When you as a consumer go into a Starbucks and order tea and the lid is on the cup, when you pick up the cup, you have a right to expect that the server has put the lid on properly," Arnold said.

Couso, 45, suffered third-degree burns to his hand and needed treatment at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center, she said.

"If the tea spills out and burns you, it's for two reasons: the lid isn't on properly, or the tea is too hot. ... If the beverage was hot enough to cause third-degree burns on Mr. Couso, it was too hot."

Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for Starbucks Coffee corporate headquarters in Seattle, said, "Starbucks places very high priority on customer and partner safety and we are sorry to hear about this customer's concerns. We are investigating the allegations. However, it is Starbucks policy not to provide details or comments on pending or current litigation."

The case has echoes of a well-known product liability case from the mid-1990s in which a jury awarded $2.9 million to a New Mexico woman who sued a McDonald's for negligence after she spilled hot coffee on her lap. The trial judge subsequently reduced the award.

Arnold said that while many scorned that case as the model of frivolous civil lawsuits, there was nothing frivolous about it -- or this: "We have cases like this all the time, because it happens more than you think," she said.

Companies are -- or should be -- aware of what temperature to maintain hot beverages at to avoid severe burns but don't care, she said. "These companies know the temperatures that they need to brew at, in order to make their beverages taste better. Sometimes, they will do that at the risk of the customer," she said. "The bottom-line profit is higher than the risk of a lawsuit."

Starbucks, founded in 1971 in Seattle, has more than 10,000 stores worldwide, according to the company's Web site.

The suit says that "the defendants were under a duty to sell food and beverages to the general public which were safe and free of any hazardous defects or conditions."

It accuses Starbucks of breaching that duty and of "negligently and carelessly" selling unsafe tea.

Couso suffered scarring and numbness to the hand, Arnold said. The suit states he has and will continue to require medical treatment.

He seeks compensatory damages for medical bills, and mental and physical pain and suffering. His wife seeks compensation for the loss of certain services from her husband because of his injury, the suit states.

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