Photo: Courtesy of Starbucks.
If you're old enough to remember the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants hot coffee lawsuit, you might also remember the time known as B.S., or Before Starbucks. The Seattle-based company may have been founded in 1971 — nearly 21 years before 79-year-old Stella Liebeck spilled a a 49-cent cup of McDonalds joe on her thighs, resulting in third-degree burns and a final settlement of more than $500,000 — but its place in our lives was solidified in the early to mid-1990s. In 1992, the same year as the Liebeck incident, Starbucks made its initial public offering. Three years later, it launched the now-ubiquitous Frappuccino. A year after that, it opened its first stores outside of the US. And, the rest is history.
But not quite. In a "Retro Report" today, The New York Times' Hilary Stout argues that while the B.S. era in which Liebeck was burned is long gone, we're still surrounded by high-temp potations, due in no small part to the Starbucks Siren. "We have become a society that totes hot liquids everywhere," she writes. "Our palms seem to be permanently attached to an elongated cup with a plastic lid."
Some of Stout's facts might be a little muddied. "Within the ensuing years [of Liebeck's spill] some genius invented a sculptured lid with a little sipping hole in the top," she asserts. Not quite. Solo debuted its Traveler Lid model in 1986, six years before Liebeck and her grandson pulled up to that drive-thru window. Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art's senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design, writes that "the Solo was the only one that could also accommodate the foam of the cappuccinos and lattes that were becoming the rage in those days." Even before the Solo Traveler, pull-tab style lids were commonplace. So, the fact that Liebeck removed the lid entirely from that fateful cup probably had little to do with its sipping design.
Stout also suggests that the milk added to today's lattes might drop the temperature of a given drink a few degrees, shielding customers from a Liebeck-style burn. But, Starbucks steams its milk between 150 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit; the American Burn Association claims that just one second of exposure to 155-degree liquid can cause a third-degree burn.
It is true, however, that more vehicles now have cup holders installed — the 1989 Ford Probe in which Liebeck was seated had none — though they were hardly nonstandard back then. And, yes, a man named Jay Sorensen patented what might be the first cup sleeve in 1993. "Coffee technology has definitely come a long way," writes Stout. So, she is very correct in proposing that all of these advancements have made us a little too carefree with our hot cuppas around babies and straphangers. At one New York hospital, she reports, 70 percent of the patients hospitalized for tea or coffee scaldings are children under 6 years old.