Monday, May 9, 2016

Monday Business Law Fun: Goldilocks, Consumer Protection, and Over-Caffeinating

[Please keep in mind as you read this post that my daughter is a Starbucks partner.  Any pro-Starbucks bias in this post is unintended.  But you should factor in my affiliation accordingly.]

Maybe it's just me, but the publicity around the recent suit against Starbucks for putting too much ice in their iced beverages made me think of Goldilocks and her reactions to that porridge, those chairs, and those beds.  First it was McDonald's, where the coffee was too hot.  Now it's Starbucks, where the coffee is too cold--or, more truthfully, is too watered down from frozen water . . . .  (And apparently I missed a Starbucks suit earlier this year on under-filing lattes . . . .)  

Different types of tort suits, I know.  I always felt bad about the injury to the woman in the McDonald's case, although the fault issue was truly questionable.  The recent Starbucks case just seems wrong in so many ways, however.  This is a consumer dispute that is best addressed by other means.  I admit to believing this most recent suit is actually an abuse of our court system.

How might a customer who is truly concerned about a substandard beverage attempt to remedy the wrong?

One way is by confronting service professionals at the point of sale.  Your can order your drink to your liking--heavy whip, light whip, half the syrup, and (yes) light on the ice!  The formulas for producing drinks are otherwise quite standardized.  And, as the WaPo article on the iced beverage suit (linked above) indicates, for better or for worse, Starbucks does have a policy of remaking drinks that a patron does not think are up to snuff--for whatever reason.  I have seen stores honor this policy in ridiculous situations in the name of customer service.

If, however, a point-of-sale approach does not work and the deficiency is consistent and seemingly systemic as across the business, then a more holistic approach is needed.  But before I would bring a personal individual or class action, I would work the Better Business Bureau complaint angle, perhaps in combination with a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission.  I have had great success with this in the past when I have had a consumer issue.  These complaint processes are pretty simple--and online.

Another productive avenue is a demand letter under a state unfair or deceptive trade practices act or other consumer protection law.  Although statutes differ from state to state, these laws may provide for (1) prior notice of a potentially litigable claim based on an unfair or deceptive trade practice and (2) the opportunity for the business to cure within a specified number of days.  Especially if treble damages are available for violations under the applicable statute, this type of process often allows for the prompt settlement of consumer disputes outside litigation.  I also have beneficially recommended and used this avenue to settle consumer disputes.

And, even though it may not require mentioning here, mediation, arbitration, and other general forms of dispute resolution also may be available and advisable in lieu of litigating a consumer dispute.

So, with all these options--most of which take a lot less time and money than a lawsuit--why sue over watered-down coffee?  U.S. society is often described as "litigious."  I do not have the data handy, but that may be right, at least by way of comparison.  Even so, to what do we attribute our over-eagerness to litigate?  Is it plaintiff's bar attorneys chasing a lawsuit?  Is it potential plaintiffs who are unaware of alternative dispute resolution methods or their potential benefits?  Is it the need for a prospective plaintiff to publicly vent against a business that has continuously frustrated him or her?  Is it just the press one gets when suing a major international business like Starbucks, even if the 15 minutes of fame make you look ridiculous?

And maybe our coffee habits here in the United States are a contributing factor.  I know how jittery, anxious, and uncensored I can be when I drink too much caffeine.  It's truly ugly.  Add that in with some of the other potential factors I posit in the preceding paragraph and, well, litigation then may be born!

Bottom line: I would like to see the Federal District Court up in the Northern District of Illinois dismiss this one quickly.

Commercial Law, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Lawyering, Litigation | Permalink


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