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Hot Coffee, Hot Cop, Cold Jury

— May 16, 2015
Image: Public domain
Image: Public domain


Stuff happens, it’s axiomatic. Sometimes people have legitimate complaints when stuff happens and other times… not so much. This is the story of Hot Coffee, Hot Cop, Cold Jury.

Lt. Matt Kohr, a Raleigh, NC police officer, was enjoy a complimentary cup o’ Joe as do all uniformed officers at this particular Starbucks. Taking it on the road, the lid popped off and the cup collapsed in Lt. Kohr’s lap. Is this sounding familiar? The good officer suffered third-degree burns on his thigh, an event he asserts caused him severe stress. The stress, in turn, triggered his Crohn’s disease and lead to surgery to remove part of his intestine. Of course, Lt. Kohr sued Starbucks.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m not exactly sympathetic to Lt. Kohr’s plight. After all, I stood up for Stella Liebeck when her McDonald’s coffee sent her to the hospital. It’s a valid question and here’s the answer. An answer, by the way, that convinced the jury to find for Starbucks, denying Lt. Kohr’s request for $750,000 in damages.

You see, Lt. Kohr, burned and in pain and stressed beyond all possible belief, testified that he did not seek immediate medical attention. In fact, he informed the jury that he left the coffee shop in his police car, returned to the police garage to retrieve his truck and then drove home to have his wife take pictures of his burned inner thigh. As defense attorney, Tricia Derr, pointed out: Lt. Kohr didn’t seek treatment until over two hours after the coffee spill.

The jury, in a 10-2 vote, agreed that it all seemed a bit suspicious. Third-degree burns are nasty. It’s logical that the first thing one does is seeks medical treatment. I understand the desire to “preserve evidence,” as I imagine Lt. Kohr was thinking “lawsuit” right off the bat. However, it just doesn’t add up that he would delay treatment for so long.

I’m not a police officer. I don’t know what the rules are for carrying one’s personal cell phone while on duty or using a police vehicle to transport oneself to an urgent care facility or hospital if one has sustained a non-life threatening injury while on duty. However, it just seems like there were better ways of handling this incident.

Were I a juror in this case, I too would’ve been hard pressed to find for Lt. Kohr. According to Healthline:

“Never attempt to self-treat a third-degree burn. Call 911 immediately. While you’re waiting for medical treatment, raise the injury above your heart. Don’t get undressed, but make sure no clothing is stuck to the burn. There is no set healing timeline for third-degree burns.” [Emphasis in original text.]

Granted, these burns are not always painful due to nerve damage, but it seems that Lt. Kohr knew there was a likelihood of serious enough injury that he wanted photographic evidence. This evidence surely could’ve been obtained during the course of treatment, though. My gut tells me that Lt. Kohr remembered the Liebeck case, or most likely, the popular but incorrect story that she laughed her way to the bank after her suit. As readers know, her original damages award was greatly reduced.


Jury: Starbucks Not Liable for Police Officer’s Coffee Spill Injuries

The McDonald’s Hot Coffee Case

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