Customers can sometimes sustain injuries when purchasing hot drinks from vendors, particularly if the contents of their drink escapes from the mouth of the lid, if the lid is not secured properly, or, if by way of an accident, liquid contents escape from the cup. Yet, one must consider what duties, if any, a vendor owes to customer who sustains an injury in such a manner.
This interesting issue was recently explored by DJ Wright, sitting at Hastings County Court, in the case of Pippa Harrison v Odeon Cinemas.
The Claimant was visiting her local Odeon Cinema with her young child to watch a film. She approached the beverage counter and ordered a cup of tea, which was given to her in a takeaway Costa Coffee cup.
The Claimant thought that the cup felt noticeably hot and therefore steadied the cup with her left hand and purse, her purse being held underneath the cup. She proceeded to walk into the cinema screen with her son. Whilst stood at her seat, the Claimant went to put the cup into the cup holder, when the lid suddenly popped off and spilled hot tea across the back of her left hand and wrist. The Claimant sustained mixed superficial to intermediate depth partial thickness burns and later attended hospital to have her wounds treated and dressed.
The Claimant's claim was brought in negligence, as she alleged that the lid of the cup was not properly secured by staff at the beverages counter, causing her to sustain injury.
The Defendant relied upon the case of B (A child) v McDonald's Restaurants Limited  EWHC 490, submitting that there was no duty of care owed by the Defendant to provide a hot drink with a properly secured lid. In the alternative, if such a duty was owed, the Defendant submitted that the Claimant should be found contributorily negligent for failing to check if the lid was secured properly.
During the course of cross-examination, the Defendant's manager accepted that she trained staff to place lids on cups properly, however she did not train all of the staff working at the beverage counter at the time of the Claimant's accident. As such, she could not guarantee that the staff member who served the Claimant's hot drink had actually received training in respect of securing cup lids.
The Judge considered that the way the Claimant carried the cup showed that she was being careful. The Judge had been provided with a Costa Coffee cup, and noted in her judgment that the lid could be fixed on loosely before it popped off. She also noted that there was a tendency for liquid to come out of the top. The Judge said that it seemed to her that there must be a duty upon the Defendant that cups were not so full that water came out of the mouth hole in the lid. The tea in this case could not be provided without a lid, as customers were going straight into a dark cinema.
The Judge considered that the Defendant firstly had a duty not to overfill the cup, so that it could be held with a normal grip without liquid coming out of the top. Further, the Judge considered that the purpose of the lid was to stop spillage, and it was the vendor's duty to ensure this. The Judge said that a customer's natural caution should not replace the duty of care. The Judge found that the lid was fixed loosely on the cup and was not properly secured, and thus the claim was made out. She did not consider that there was any contributory negligence. Consequently, the Claimant was awarded damages for her injury.
This was an interesting case that clarified the duties upon vendors when serving hot drinks in their establishments. It emphasises that vendors should take greater care when serving hot drinks, to ensure that cups are not overfilled with fluid and that lids are secured properly, as they will likely face litigation if they fail to do so.