Lawsuits are as American as apple pie, and the more successful the business, the bigger the target. So with more than 12,000 locations nationwide and $16 billion in annual revenue, it’s no wonder Starbucks has been sued countless times. From too-hot coffee and slightly overpriced breakfast sandwiches to copyright infringement and discrimination, here are the many lawsuits Starbucks has faced over the past year.
No one likes to be overcharged, but is a quarter worth going to court over? A group of California residents thought so: After discovering that several Los Angeles-area Starbucks were charging 20 to 30 cents more for breakfast sandwiches than the advertised price, a class-action suit was filed. The suit was settled this week, with Starbucks agreeing to issue 25 cent gift cards to anyone who can prove they purchased said sandwiches during a certain time period; the company is refunding $365,000 plus nearly $100,000 in attorneys’ fees. Sweet, sweet victory.
In July 2015, a Utah woman sued after Starbucks allegedly served her coffee laced with industrial-strength cleaner. Cheryl Kingery said the incident caused burns to her mouth and digestive tract and sought $2 million for medical expenses, lost wages, and "emotional distress." Just a few months later, a Seattle woman filed a remarkably similar suit after she says she was served hot chocolate tainted with the same cleaner, allegedly causing her to seek months of medical treatment.
79-year-old Stella Liebeck set a precedent with a landmark hot-coffee lawsuit against McDonald’s in 1994, and Starbucks has faced similar litigation on numerous occasions: Last November, a customer who ordered a cup of hot water sued for $132,000 after she says the cup collapsed, leaving her with first- and second-degree burns; the suit claimed the water was "far too hot for a person to drink."
Then in January, Florida resident Christopher Romano sued for negligence after he says a Starbucks employee spilled a cup of too-hot coffee on him at the drive-thru window, causing second-degree burns to his groin. Just five months later, a Houston woman filed a nearly identical lawsuit, claiming her burns from the "dangerously hot" coffee were so severe she was out of work for a months; she reportedly sought up to $1 million.
Did Starbucks steal a Brooklyn artist’s work to plaster it on Frappuccino cups? Muralist Maya Hayuk sued the company for $750,000 last summer, claiming that after she turned down a request to work with Starbucks, they forged ahead anyway — using graphics that looked remarkably similar to some of her work to promote its mini Frapps.
When folks pay $5 for a cup of coffee, they damn well expect it to be filled to the tippy-top. In March, a class-action suit filed in California raised plenty of eyebrows: The plaintiffs say Starbucks shortchanges its customers by leaving a quarter-inch of space in its cups, resulting in lattes that are 25 percent smaller than the menu claims. While many have declared the suit frivolous, it will indeed have its day in court: Back in June, a judge rejected Starbucks’ attempt to have the suit dismissed and ruled the case can proceed.
It could result in a giant payout for the company, too, as the class would include anyone in the U.S. who’s purchased a Starbucks latte. (Of course, if Starbucks actually filled its cups up to the very top, the company would likely find itself on the receiving end of more spilled hot coffee lawsuits. What’s a corporate behemoth to do?)
TOO MUCH ICE
The underfilled latte fiasco quickly inspired multiple copycats: Just two months later in May, Illinois resident Stacy Pincus sued Starbucks because its iced drinks contain too much ice — to the tune of $5 million. The class-action suit says the chain misrepresents the size of its iced beverages, since nearly half the cup is filled with ice. Starbucks says the lawsuit is meritless, and the Daily Show agrees: "I'm sorry, the only time you should complain if something you ordered came with too much ice is if you were on the Titanic," host Trevor Noah recently quipped.
Incredibly, another similar suit was filed at the same time in California; it was dismissed this week, with a U.S. district judge saying it had "no weight" because any reasonable consumer understands that ice takes up space in a cup.
Last October, a former Starbucks barista in Arizona filed suit against Starbucks, claiming the company discriminated against her because she’s deaf. She says that in the seven years she worked there, management repeatedly refused her requests for reasonable accommodations, such as an interpreter during staff meetings; after filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she says she was fired in retaliation. Interestingly, in July of this year the company announced it’s opening a store in Kuala Lumpur that will employ 10 people who are deaf; it will also provide interpreters for said employees.
While that sums up the biggest suits Starbucks has faced over the past year, it’s hardly a complete list. Here are just some of the other suits that have kept Starbucks’ lawyers busy over the years: a hidden bathroom camera; assault by a manager; wet floors; sexual harassment; wage theft; turning away service dogs; and, painfully enough, a crushed penis.