When you’re in the coffee business, you already know how much people love their morning (or afternoon, or evening) cup of joe. Coffee is a way of life for many people. It gives them a jolt to start their day, keeps them running through the afternoon, and even has been linked to health benefits like longevity because of its antioxidants. It’s even good for your skin.
But, as with any type of business, there are always risks to consider. You might be asking yourself what could be so dangerous about coffee. As a response, we’d like to direct you to the 1992 case involving McDonald’s and 79-year-old Stella Liebeck.
You might remember this particular case, as it gained a lot of national press at the time. Ms. Liebeck purchased a cup of McDonald’s coffee to go and set the cup between her legs so she could remove the lid and add cream and sugar. As she did, the coffee spilled all over her lap, causing severe burns all over her legs and groin area.
As a result, Ms. Liebeck had to undergo extensive surgeries and treatments for her burns, including skin grafts. She brought a lawsuit against McDonald’s and was willing to settle for $20,000, but McDonald’s fought the suit - something that probably wasn’t a smart business move, but somehow, the financial burden of it still didn’t hurt them.
So, what can your business learn from this particular case and others like it that may have received less attention?
The Bitter Taste of Bad Press
There were people on both sides of the McDonald’s case - some for Ms. Liebeck, and some against her. As it turned out, the courts found Ms. Liebeck to be at 20% fault, since at the time, McDonald’s did include a small warning on their cups, and Ms. Liebeck was the one who opened it.
But, it was also discovered that McDonald’s prepared their coffee to be over 180-degrees Fahrenheit, which is higher than most other fast food chains and can cause severe burns to the skin in a matter of seconds.
So, because McDonald’s didn’t reach a settlement with Ms. Liebeck, the media continued their coverage of the case. Some people treated Ms. Liebeck with great disrespect and even argued that she was being treated with ageism, complaints of which by women over the age of 65 have doubled in recent years, according to Duquesne University.
Ms. Liebeck had to undergo skin grafts and other types of tissue engineering, which was relatively new at the time but is now nearly ubiquitous in healthcare, boosting the costs of her medical bills. McDonald’s could have easily covered them in a settlement but chose to fight the lawsuit instead.
While some people were against Ms. Liebeck, some were also against McDonald’s. While the company didn’t suffer much, financially, bad press can ruin a business. That’s especially true for a small business that is trying to outdo its competitors. Public relations should be a huge priority for any small business, so if you ever do receive any negative media attention, you can take care of it quickly.
Social media has also made it easier to take care of “bad press,” and make your company seem more personable. If someone posts a bad review about your coffee shop or they have a question, you can easily answer on whatever social media platform you’re using. This shows your customers that you care about their needs and wants, and it can help to boost your business reputation.
Covering Your Coffee Business
Again, thinking about what could possibly go wrong in your business probably isn’t always at the forefront of your mind, but it’s important to keep your coffee company covered. While you’re likely required to have some kind of business insurance, that might not always cover every incident that occurs, including burns to employees or customers.
Instead of standard business insurance, umbrella insurance might be the best option for your company. Commercial umbrella insurance allows you additional liability for things like medical expenses, legal fees, and damage expenses.
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to insuring your company is to make sure you’re covered as much as possible. Accidents happen, and one lawsuit can do a lot of damage to a small business. The right insurance can help you to avoid costs you otherwise couldn’t afford.
Caution: Contents Are Hot
You should be focused on protecting your business by knowing as much about the legalities of it as possible. A big part of handling your own coffee business includes a lot of paperwork. Make sure you have all of the right permits, certifications, and licenses to produce your own coffee, serve food, etc. A lack of proper paperwork can lead you to court.
It’s also important to make sure your employees and suppliers follow all of the rules, too. You can really cover your bases by making sure your customers are fully aware of anything that could potentially be harmful. This could include things like putting some kind of warning about hot coffee on your cups or making sure you note which of your baked goods have allergens such as nuts, gluten, etc. Making things as transparent as possible for people will make it harder for anyone to come after you if something goes wrong.
A major corporation like McDonald’s may not have lost much from this major “coffee drama,” but small businesses can learn from their mistakes. If the same thing happened to your business, you might have a lot more to lose, and may not be able to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars in court just to stay afloat.
Doing your research before you start a business and covering all of your legal bases is obviously the best way to go. But even if you’ve been in business for years, it’s never a bad idea to re-familiarize yourself with some of the rules and make sure everything you’re doing within your company is up to standard. Keep your customers well-informed, keep your employees safe and cared for, and you can usually avoid running into any “hot water” within your business.