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Coffee write: Spills happen

September 18, 2013
By Brian Martell


Sept. 18, 2013, Canada – Brian Martell sheds light on a matter where one woman wants compensation for her third degree burns, as a result of spilling her coffee.

Sept. 18, 2013, Canada –
Every now and again someone somewhere is the victim of an unfortunate accident. The degree of tragedy runs from “it’s been a bad day” to “my life will never be the same”. How we deal with misfortune usually has much to say about how we take control of our lives.
The most misappropriated energy in this pursuit is when personal calamity causes people to feel so humiliated that they have the need to alter everyone else’s lives through governmental petition for added regulation.

Roughly six months ago, a Winnipeg woman was riding shot gun and wound up in a collision. One consequence was that she split her recently purchased tea on her thigh, which resulted in a nasty third degree burn; a very painful experience. The hospital staff that treated her said that the temperature of the tea had to be close to 88C for the type of burns she suffered and noted that at 69C, third degree burns would happen in one second.

We should also note that this is a terrible accident where pain and suffering is not a metaphoric hyperbole, but an accurate description. If this is sounding familiar to some of you in the coffee industry you’ll remember the Stella Liebeck vs. McDonald’s case in 1992. Liebeck had purchased coffee at a McDonald’s in Albuquerque, N.M. and accidentally spilled it on her lap. She suffered the same burns, as the lady in Manitoba and ended up suing McDonald’s two years later. She eventually won her case, which outraged many in the foodservice industry, as well as the legal community calling for a wholesale reform to tort laws (a tort is when someone unintentionally causes harm to another, but is still responsible for the damage).
The initial settlement was reduced by the trial judge and then further pared through a closed-door negotiation between the litigants to an undisclosed amount. It set a precedent for all major restaurant chains throughout North America to start marking on all their take-out cups “CAUTION HOT BEVERAGE”. This case outraged such a large group of people that it even spawned an annual satirical prize for frivolous lawsuits called The Stella Awards.


The lady from Winnipeg has already applied for compensation from the restaurant, and their legal department declined to pay. Now, in perhaps stereotypical Canadian fashion, there is a call to have government step in and regulate the temperature of hot beverages that can be dangerous “for the sake of the public good”.
The CBC report, which sympathetically aired this story, recently had health care professionals making statements like “the industry has to be held accountable” – accountable for what? The inference was accountable for selling dangerously hot products to unsuspecting consumers who would not reasonably know that coffee and tea are hot beverages regardless of what is written on the cups.

Let’s be clear about these beverages. They are prepared hot (tea hotter than coffee) based on flavour development. The ideal temperature to brew coffee is 95C (+/- 2C) with the drinking temperature in the mid 80s. Tea is brewed with near boiling water with a drinking temperature slightly higher than coffee. For this reason both beverages are sipped and consumed over a longer period of time. As a society who likes both tea and coffee, we are aware of this and have been for centuries. Indeed, if the tea had been prepared at home by this lady the same result would have occurred; as such would you be reading this blog right now? The answer is probably not, unless Proctor Sylex or Black and Decker “needed to be held accountable”.

As for government regulations, what would be the result if the call to arms for more state interference in our lives were to succeed? Restaurateurs and OCS providers would be compelled through government edict to prepare coffee and tea at “safe” temperatures, presumably well below the 69C level that would not provoke burns. For those of you who have been on a service call for malfunctioning coffee machines where the thermostat can no longer hold a proper temperature this will be your fresh hell all day every day with the difference being you won’t be able to fix it.

Consumers will no longer buy coffee or tea outside of the home (it will be guaranteed to taste like dreck at temperatures so low) and inside of the home French Presses will be the only way to get a decent cup of coffee (we’re assuming here that the government would see to it that equipment manufacturers of home coffee and tea brewers were also “held accountable”). If Canadians are no longer allowed to enjoy their hot beverages brewed the way they like them then we can only imagine what will happen to the coffee and tea industries.
It is understandable how devastating it is to suffer severe burns and how the questions of “why me” and “could this have been preventable” would be first in mind. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, this fact of life will keep repeating itself as long as humanity walks the Earth and added government regulation is rarely the panacea.

Brian Martell works at Heritage Coffee as vice-president of sales, and has 21 years of industry experience. Brian has also been the recipient of three prestigious awards: the Don Storey, Stuart Daw, and the Albert DeNovelus Customer Service awards. Questions, comments, feedback, start a dialogue? E-mail him at

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