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Starbucks defeats NY woman's tea burn lawsuit

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Manhattan woman has failed to persuade a U.S. appeals court that Starbucks Corp should be held liable for severe burns she suffered after spilling tea served in a double cup.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld on Tuesday a lower court's dismissal of a $3 million lawsuit brought by Rachel Moltner against the world's largest coffee chain.

Moltner was 76 in February 2008 when she burned herself at a Starbucks coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

She spilled tea onto her left leg and foot when she tried to remove the lid from a "venti"-sized cup of tea, causing burns that required a skin graft. Her hospital stay later resulted in other injuries, including bed sores as well as herniated discs caused by a fall out of bed.

The plaintiff accused Starbucks of serving tea that was too hot in a double cup -- one cup placed inside another -- that was defectively designed. She also said Starbucks should have warned her the tea could spill.

The appeals court rejected her case, saying "double-cupping is a method well known in the industry as a way of preventing a cup of hot tea from burning one's hand."

David Jaroslawicz, a lawyer for Moltner, said Tuesday's ruling probably ends his client's case.

"The other side presented an old lady knocking over her tea," he said. "The case was really about that Starbucks has a directive to employees that you should not double-cup because it changes the center of gravity and can cause the cup to tip over."

A lawyer for Starbucks did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

This is not the first time a restaurant or coffee retailer has faced a lawsuit over hot beverages.

In perhaps the best-known case, a jury in 1994 ordered McDonald's Corp to pay $2.86 million to Stella Liebeck, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, woman who said she scalded herself with the restaurant's coffee. The parties later settled.

The case is Moltner v. Starbucks Coffee Co, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 09-4943.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, editing by Matthew Lewis)

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