The Travel Troubleshooter: How much is that coffee spill worth?

Question: My husband and I recently flew from Berlin to Newark on Continental Airlines. After about 45 minutes in the air, the flight attendants offered beverage service. I politely requested coffee.

There was no turbulence. When the flight attendant reached over my husband to serve me in the window seat, she spilled the entire contents of a cup of scalding hot coffee directly into my lap. I jumped out of my seat and took off for the restroom. I was scalded, traumatized and very embarrassed. Everyone up and down the aisle was staring.

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My pants were soaked through to my underwear. The seat cushion was soaked and my husband’s shirt and pants were wet as well. Both seat cushions had to be replaced. The flight attendant was apologetic and upon my return from the restroom, realized that I was hurt and in tears. She offered me ice. I declined. Another attendant came over a while later and offered me aspirin.

The attendant informed us that we would be required to complete an incident report, which we did. We were also given a voucher to have our clothes cleaned.

In consideration of the pain, embarrassment and inconvenience, I asked Continental to reimburse my frequent flier account 100,000 miles, which is what I paid for my ticket. Continental has refused. Can you help? — Sheryl Siegel, Wellington, Fla.

Answer: Continental was correct to apologize and offer you the cleaning certificates. But how much more are you entitled to? What’s your pain and suffering worth?

Accidents involving hot beverages remind me of the 1994 McDonald’s coffee case, in which a customer of the fast-food restaurant was awarded nearly $3 million by a jury after she spilled hot coffee on herself. Her attorneys argued the coffee was served too hot.

Now, 100,000 miles is a lot less than the $2.8 million reportedly awarded in the McDonald’s case. But is it reasonable? The way I see it, if there’s an incident report, and you’re unhappy with the resolution that a company offers you in its immediate aftermath, then you should follow up with a polite letter or email asking it to review your grievance.

Not only did you do that, but you also did Continental a favor by telling it how it could resolve the problem to your satisfaction. Why the airline refused is a mystery, and one that I asked it to look into.

Turns out the department that handled your grievance was not authorized to award frequent flier miles. Your complaint was routed to a division that deals with personal injury claims, and its main concern was whether you had incurred any additional medical expenses, which you hadn’t.

A Continental representative contacted you and offered you $300 as a settlement, which you accepted.

31 thoughts on “The Travel Troubleshooter: How much is that coffee spill worth?

  1.  This story is all about the “gimme”.  She was hurt, and the flight attendant and airline acknowledged that, apologized, offered medical care and took care of their clothes, and the reaction is “what do I GET?”  I understand that it was inconvenient, embarassing, and painful, but it was unintended.  There is no lesson for the FA or airline to learn from suffering financial punishment, and a free flight or money doesn’t and shouldn’t make it all better.

  2. $300.00 is very generous. The woman doesn’t appear to be injured so I doubt the coffee was scalding although I am sure that is was hot.

    This reminds of me of another hot coffee/airline story from a few months ago.

  3. Asking for 100,000 miles seems likea  bit much and overly greedy.  But I’m guessing she went the route of ask for the world when you’ll actually be happy with just something small.   

  4. It appears that both parties acted responsibly. The flight crew followed steps that indicated genuine care and concern. Completing an incident report documented the situation while fresh in the minds of both parties.
    The decision of the passenger to request compensation propelled the situation into a different realm. Because this was a personal injury case it needed to be escalated to the appropiate department. It does not matter whether she was right or wrong in making a request, nor does it matter what her request. She should have been directed to the correct department immediately. I’m glad both parties reached an agreement. Note – in the infamous coffee spill case, the judge reduced the award to $480,000. The case was then settled in a manner that avoided appeals and probably for a lessor amount. These details garnered little media attention.

  5.  i was burned with boiling water in college which required an ambulance trip to the hospital and months of painful recovery. this incident is nowhere near that….I think she was asking for way too much and should be grateful with the $300 compensation offered.

    1.  @PortaPocketGal:disqus I had a similar incident in college. I completely agree. Nobody compensated me financially. I had to pay the ambulance and hospital bills myself. She should be thankful for what she got.

  6. Definitely worked out for the best – the only thing that could have led me to think CO should have offered more was if the plane was full and the OP had to fly the remaining 8 (or so) hours of the flight sitting in a wet seat.  As she didn’t mention that, no worries.  Personally, CO could have bough me off with a couple of Executive Lounge passes for use in the next year, but then I’m cheap and easy – just ply me with some booze and I’m a happy camper!

  7.  “Traumatized”? Puh-leeze. I realize getting hot coffee spilled on you isn’t pleasant. But she doesn’t say she actually suffered burns. I think “trauma” is overstating the case a bit. Don’t think 100,000 miles are warranted.

  8. One thing that comes to mind is: When people are feeling outraged, hurt or embarrassed or all, hyperbole tends to take over.  Not that I’ve ever been subject to such (really?), people can lean that way.  I can see being embarrassed.  I can see being hurt as hot water can hurt.  I can’t see asking for the bulk of her miles refunded for a trip she DID take.

    I think the resolution accepted was, uh, acceptable.  It’s not as though the flight attendants ignored her.  They changed the seat cushions.  They offered her ice (which is the wrong form of first aid, perhaps an ice pack with something around it to help prevent further damage to the skin) and aspirin.  They also offered her a dry cleaning certificate and had her fill out an incident report.

    Seems to me the OP was bargaining from an incredibly high starting point, nothing more.  To go from 100,000 miles to $300 in flight certs is a big difference.

  9. Why won’t airlines use LIDS on coffee cups?  I’ve spent more than one flight trying to keep coffee from sloshing all over the place in turbulent skies! 

  10. Accidents happen.  She wasn’t hurt (which was fortunate.)  A complete refund for the flight seems more than a bit much.  That said, it would have been nice if the complaint had been forwarded to the correct department to begin with.

  11. Christopher, you really shouldn’t use the McDonalds case as a comparison here.  People tend to mention that case as an example of a frivolous lawsuit, or a “gimme gimme” situation.  It was neither.  

    The facts of the case are that the coffee served was scalding — capable of almost instantaneous destruction of skin, flesh
    and muscle. A vascular surgeon determined that the plaintiff suffered full
    thickness burns (or third-degree burns) over 6 percent of her body,
    including her inner thighs, perineum, buttocks, and genital and groin
    areas. She was hospitalized for eight days, during which time she
    underwent skin grafting. and debridement
    treatments.  She sought to settle her claim for $20,000, but McDonalds

    McDonalds had over 700 claims from people burned by its super-hot coffee.  Documents proved that McDonalds had knowledge of the hazard of serving coffee at such unusually high temps, but chose not to lower the serving temperature.  They admitted that they had not evaluated the
    safety ramifications of serving coffee at this unusually high temperature. Other establishments sell
    coffee at substantially lower temperatures.

    The judge called
    McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.
    MacDonalds ultimately reduced the temperature of its coffee. 

    The plaintiff did NOT get 2.5 mil.  The parties settled out of court, and the settlement has never been revealed publicly.

    Just keepin’ it real.

    This case does NOT compare.  The OP apparently was not injured.  Spills happen, especially in a moving vehicle.  That’s why airplane coffee is served at lower-than-normal temps – liquid at these temps will not burn.

    1.  @cec950b8fdbdf4f9ea6f8f2f171f2d69:disqus Thank you, LeeAnne, for correctly addressing the McDonald’s case.  I hate when people use that case (without any knowledge of the facts) as a symbol for frivolous lawsuits when it was the furthest thing from it. 

      In this case, if there were no burns, the settlement was adequate.  100,000 miles was off-base but probably used as a starting point for some negotiation. 

    2. Thanks for presenting the truth about the McDonalds case.  It was a truly tragic situation , hardly the frivolous case that people try to make it out to be. 

  12. Surprisingly, the ultimate outcome is the right and fair outcome. 100000 miles is too much, but I don’t get the impression that the OP was looking for a payday. While certain language such as “traumatized” may be overly dramatic, the fact that she openly acknowledged that there was no additional medical expense makes me believe the OP was sincere in her quest for compensation.

    Too bad that the case could not be closed without Elliott’s intervention. Thats the only thing I would ding Continental for in this case.

  13. It is idiotic that anyone would think it’s okay to have an open container of scalding liquid on an airplane — I don’t understand why they can’t put them in Starbucks-style cups with lids.

    The only mitigation is that she was the one who requested the coffee, so is partially at fault.  If it were an innocent third party that got spilled on, I’d say heavy compensation is due to try to force a change.

  14. I always wondered the same thing as mentioned by other folks — why no lids? Not just for hot beverages, but why not for cold drinks too? Maybe I want my juice/soda to stay cold for an hour (they do give you ice) since I’m not ready to drink my beverage but in an hour, the attendants won’t be able to serve any drinks. The new drink cups/lids can be recycled and shouldn’t contribute to any additional weight on the flight. 

  15.  I believe it was an adequate settlement.  Once I was spilled on; they gave me a voucher to have jacket cleaned.  Accidents happen.

  16. Well…to be fair to the woman with the McDonalds coffee spill…the spilled coffee caused 3rd degree burns on her…um..uh, lady parts…that needed to have reconstructive surgery to repair! That’s some *HOT* coffee!

  17. In this day and age when people get 100K miles for opening a credit card account, I don’t think the passenger’s request was out of line. Nor was it for CO to come back with a different counteroffer. In the end they settled amicably for $300, and that’s just fine. Seems like a routine negotiation process. The only glitch in my opinion was that some CO department rejected her original request instead of forwarding to appropriate department.

  18. oh please-anyone who claims this is embarrassing has lead a sheltered life.   Continental did all the right things per the “traumatized” victim.   It was an accident, get over it.  

    1. Years ago, I had a similar thing happen to me on a flight, except the flight attendant and I stripped my pants off of me (in the galley area as much as possible but in sight of others) to avoid further burns and put cold water on my leg. Unlike the woman here, I did end up with a small blister and a clear burn. I knew that the flight attendant felt terrible about the whole thing as she was VERY apologetic and I was just glad it wasn’t worse (and that I was wearing decent underwear).

      I was offered a voucher to replace the jeans I was wearing and I was satisfied.

      I’m not big on the traumatized and embarrassed thing.

  19. just an FYI, Southwest Airlines offers lids for both hot and cold drinks. they are always available upon request.  they are always used for kids and are often used when turbulence is expected.
    JUST ASK! not that hard!

  20.  Well, this is another one who is trying to shake down the airline for a free flight. The embellishments of her “pain” and “embarrassment” just grate on my nerves. You know what’s embarrassing? Sitting next to a baby that doesn’t belong to you–the dreaded ‘lap child’–who pukes all over your suit on your way to a meeting. I didn’t ask for anything besides a towel to clean up.

  21. I witnessed a similar occurance on a United flight.  First, however, this was avoidable if the passenger and attendant had followed standard procedures – the attendant holds a tray out for the cup, pours over the aisle or cart and passes the tray with a single cup, sweeteners and cream to the window passenger…
    In the case I saw (in the first hour of a transpacific flight) the passenger had to strip in the aisle while others held blankets to shield him.  He wrapped himself in the blanket as a sarong and was joking about it later.  The flight attendants managed to wash the slacks and they were dry by the end of the flight (that cabin air really is dry!)  I was surprized the guy was so understanding, and was a little embarrased he didn’t have an emergency change of clothes in his carry-on.  My lesson – accidents happen, be prepared, carry an extra outfit if you check luggage .  The guy got compensated better for being gracious – i’m not sure how much, but he repeatedly said to the attendants they didn’t have to fuss – which made them want to do more for him….

  22. It is really impractical to estimate the personal injury compensation claim without the full legal consultation therefore it is appropriate to proceed for the personal injury claim after the discussion with personal injury solicitor because personal injury claims can be varied depending on the injuries.people can take off from work and go through their complete medical treatment in return with the filing of claim.

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