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California man sues Starbucks over tea scalding, says it led to 'disfigurement' of genitals

The Sacramento Bee — Sam Stanton The Sacramento Bee

Sept. 16-- Sep. 16--Just before 10 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2018, Tommy Piluyev and his family pulled his BMW SUV into the drive-through of a Starbucks in the Northern California city of Roseville.

Piluyev, then 22, and his wife ordered two grande-sized Honey Citrus Mint Teas, a decision that a new federal lawsuit says has changed his life forever.

"As the window associate reached to the SUV's window sill to deliver the second sleeved and lidded cup to Mr. Piluyev, the lid lost its seal with the cup lip and dislodged from the top of the cup," according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Sacramento. "Hot tea spilled on Mr. Piluyev's left hand during the transfer, the cup overturned on the window sill and hot tea poured onto Mr. Piluyev's hands, stomach and pelvic area.

"Covered in scalding tea, and unable to open his door to escape because he was near the drive-through window, Mr. Piluyev quickly put the SUV into gear and accelerated from the window. He pulled into an adjacent parking lot, hastily exited the vehicle stripped off his sweat pants."

By the time he traveled from the Cirby Way store to Sutter Roseville Medical Center's emergency room, he suffered "partial-thickness burns with blistering across the lower left abdomen, thighs, penis, scrotum, peritoneum and buttocks," according to the suit, which also claims he suffered burns on nine fingers and can no longer play the piano.

Piluyev ended up in the UC Davis Medical Center's burn unit for 11 days, where the suit says "he required intravenous pain control along with intensive and invasive wound care."

"Mr. Piluyev could not use his hands or fingers for any purpose, including personal care," the suit says. "He became entirely dependent on the medical staff.

"Upon discharge, Mr. Piluyev's wife performed her husband's wound and personal care. Mr. Piluyev transitioned from IV narcotics to gabapentin, oxycodone, Tylenol and ibuprofen. In the five months post-discharge Mr. Piluyev gradually regained the ability to walk, the ability to sense touch in some of his fingers, the ability to hold his young child, and eventually, to use a computer keyboard. Mr. Piluyev remained unable to play the piano.

"The sensitivity and permanent skin discoloration and disfigurement of Mr. Piluyev's genitals and inner thighs made eventual intimacy awkward and painful."

Now, Piluyev and his wife, Liudmila Maftey, are suing Starbucks and Pactiv Packaging Inc., which the suit says provided the cups and lids, alleging negligence and product liability.

Their lawyer, Whitney Davis, who has offices in Fort Worth, Texas, and Sacramento, alleges in the lawsuit that the defendants were aware of 80 complaints per day of lids popping off cups, and that they "had knowledge of additional complaints and burn incidents from employees, managers and associates concerning defective cups and lids."

The tea itself is served at temperatures ranging from 190 to 205 degrees, the suit says.

Pactiv did not respond to a request for comment, but a Starbucks spokeswoman said the coffee giant is evaluating the claim.

"Our partners take great pride in ensuring our beverages are crafted with care and delivered to customers safely," the spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company said. "And we take our responsibility to provide a safe environment seriously and will continue to do so."

The lawsuit is similar to others over the years that have alleged injury from coffee or other hot drinks spilling onto customers.

One of the most famous "hot coffee" lawsuits came in 1992, when a 79-year-old woman, Stella Liebeck, sued McDonalds after sustaining burns from a spilled cup of coffee and was awarded $2.9 million in damages.

The size of the award, which was later reduced, drew national headlines and accusations that such suits were frivolous, something attorneys and legal organizations say is unwarranted.

"The coffee was not just 'hot,' but dangerously hot," Consumer Attorneys of California says in a posting on the case. "McDonald's corporate policy was to serve it at a temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds.

"Mrs. Liebeck's injuries were far from frivolous. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere."

Liebeck originally sought $20,000 for medical expenses and lost income, but the case went to trial after McDonalds refused to offer more than $800, the attorneys group said.

"Liebeck's case was far from an isolated event," the group said. "McDonald's had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases."

Starbucks has faced similar suits, including a 2017 case that resulted in a woman winning a $100,000 verdict after she was burned when the lid on a 20-ounce cup of coffee popped off and burned her, according to the Florida-based Morgan & Morgan law firm.

"Cases like this and the infamous McDonald's coffee lawsuit are treated as a punchline among those who feel our country has become overly litigious, despite the life-altering injuries suffered by victims like our client," the law firm said in a statement on its website. "You need only listen to Toby Keith's classic lyric, 'Spill a cup of coffee, make a million dollars,' to understand how our country views these cases."

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