Appellate court allows personal injury suit against Starbucks to go ahead

Steve Gonzalez Oct. 13, 2006, 7:54am

George Moran

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed former Circuit Judge George Moran's decision to dismiss a personal injury suit against Starbucks.

Moran dismissed the suit filed by Southern Illinois University Edwardsville student Molly Alter, who claimed hot coffee burned her so badly she had to miss an entire semester of school.

In her 2004 suit, Alter claimed a coffee lid popped off and the cup collapsed in on itself, causing hot coffee to burn both her hands. She claimed she was forced to take "incompletes" in three classes.

She also claimed the inability to use her hands in a metal smith program put her graduate assistantship in jeopardy and diminished her future earning capacity.

Moran ruled that SIUE--where Alter purchased her coffee--is a state entity that has total control over the Starbucks. If Alter wished to pursue her case, she should go through the Illinois Court of Claims in Springfield, he said.

Alter appealed arguing Moran erred in granting Starbucks motion to dismiss because her action is not a tort claim against SIUE or the state but is a tort claim against a private corporation, which, as a separate matter, is contractually indemnified by SIUE.

She claimed SIUE's only obligation is derived contractually from the agreement it voluntarily entered into with Starbucks, so in no way can be the defendant.

Alter, represented by Matthew Marlen of Belleville, argued that if Moran's decision was affirmed, SIUE would effectively be granted the ability to transfer its immunities and privileges as part of a sovereign entity to a private corporation.

Starbucks, represented by the defense firm Heyl Royster, argued Moran properly found that Alter's claim was actually a claim against the state which must be brought in the Court of Claims because the lawsuit is actually a suit against State employees.

Authoring the opinion for the court, Justice Richard Goldenhersh wrote, "The mere fact that the coffee was sold from a Starbucks store located on State property rather than a Starbucks located on private property should not protect Starbucks from liability if plaintiff can show that Starbucks breached its duty."

He added, "Moreover, Starbucks cannot escape liability merely because the University voluntarily entered into a contract with Starbucks to reimburse and/or indemnify Starbucks in connection with any actions that may be brought against the Starbucks located on the University's campus."

Goldenhersh states the court relied on the decision Kiersch v. Ogena, 230 Ill. App. 3d 57, 595 N.E.2d 696 (1992) to make their decision.

In Kiersch, a student at Illinois State University (ISU) filed a medical malpractice action against a university-employed physician who had treated her.

In that case the court ruled that sovereign immunity did not shield the State-employed physician from immunity.

The appellate court also ruled that the language of contract between Starbucks and SIUE clearly indicates that the agreement was not intended to make SIUE liable for all matters arising out of its operation of the Starbucks store.

"If it was, there would be no reason for Starbucks to obtain separate legal counsel, participate in the defense of any lawsuit, or approve settlements concerning claims originating from the operation of the Starbucks on the University's campus," Goldenhersh wrote.

"Finally, we agree with plaintiff that the trial court's decision as it stands effectively allows the University to transfer its sovereign immunities and privileges to a private corporation," Goldenhersh wrote. "This is unacceptable."

"While the trial court refused to label the Agreement an indemnification agreement, we have no such trouble doing so."

The case has been remanded back to Madison County for further proceedings.

Circuit Judge Don Weber will take over the case.

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Heyl Royster
124 SW Adams St
Peoria, IL 61602

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