Starbucks, that most ubiquitous of coffee chains, has been named as a defendant in a class action lawsuit over alleged false advertising of its drinks for the second time this year. The most recent lawsuit, filed by a Chicago woman, argues that Starbucks has misled millions of its customer over the past decade by selling iced coffee drinks at a specified size while routinely filling much of the cup with ice, thereby selling a smaller amount of iced coffee than is advertised. The plaintiff in the class action seeks $5 million in damages from the coffee chain.
The Legal Claims Behind Too Much Ice
The plaintiff’s complaint boils down to this: “In essence, Starbucks is advertising the size of its cold drink cups on its menus, rather than the amount of fluid that the customer will receive when they purchase a Cold Drink – and deceiving its customers in the process.” The plaintiff alleged that, by doing so, Starbucks breached sales warranties made to its customers regarding the true nature of the drinks, committed fraud on those customers by deceiving them, and violated Illinois consumer fraud regulations.
In March, Starbucks was also sued in a complaint seeking class action certification over the size of its lattes. In that suit, filed by a consumer in San Francisco, the plaintiff argued that the coffee chain routinely underfilled its lattes by as much as 25%. The complaint indicated that plaintiff’s counsel had ordered lattes “at different stores, in different states, in different sizes, and in different flavors,” and that on each occasion the latte was underfilled from the advertised size (12 oz, 16 oz, and 20 oz.) at an average of 25%. The lawsuit noted that, because Starbucks cups hold exactly their advertised sizes when filled to the very top, and Starbucks refuses to fill the cups completely as a policy, that the advertised sizes are by definition false. That lawsuit also claimed a breach of sales warranties as well as violations of California’s consumer protection laws.
Frivolous Lawsuits or Legitimate Claims?
The media often picks up on stories of well-known retail chains being sued by consumers, knowing that, because we all know these chains, the idea of a lawsuit will generate a lot of chatter. And it seems that whenever a retail chain beverage is at the center of the lawsuit, there is the accusation that the claims are frivolous.
The Starbucks class action suits do bring to mind a famous lawsuit brought against McDonald’s in 1992 by a woman who suffered burns from the heat of the coffee. That lawsuit (which was not a class action) was endlessly mocked as being frivolous as a result of the woman being awarded $3 million in punitive damages by a jury. After all, coffee is supposed to be hot, right?
A closer look at those facts tells a whole different story than the late night punchlines suggested. McDonald’s had a practice of keeping its coffee hotter than necessary, and had received 700 official complaints from customers prior to the plaintiff’s accident. The woman injured by the coffee suffered third-degree burns (the most painful kind) on her body requiring skin grafts, and an 8-day hospital stay. She asked McDonald’s for $20,000, but the company refused to pay more than $800, electing to go to trial instead, where the jury unilaterally awarded her the large verdict. The plaintiff suffered pain from her injuries for the rest of her life.
The McDonald’s case is a strong reminder that, oftentimes, consumers have nowhere to turn for recourse against the large corporations that take advantage of them except through the consumer protection laws designed to protect them and attorneys willing to represent their cause. While it remains to be seen what the relative merit of the complaints against Starbucks are, it is important to remember that you as a consumer do have rights and should not expect that corporations can take advantage of you without recourse.
For more information about bringing a consumer fraud class action, contact the complex litigation attorneys at McCuneWright at 909.572.8019.