Let This Starbucks Incident Remind You to Check Your Coffee Cup

A lawsuit claims that a Starbucks customer was served a cup of cleaning solution.

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coffee cup in car cupholder
Photo: Zhang Peng/LightRocket (Getty Images)

A new lawsuit against Starbucks claims that a Greenwich, Connecticut man named Matthew Tyler Mitchell was served a cup full of caustic cleaning chemicals last summer. The New York Post reports that he received a cup that wasn’t full of the coffee he’d ordered, but rather a substance called “Urnex Urn & Brewer Cleaner.” If it has the word “urn” in it, I’m going to hazard a guess that you’re not going to want to put that substance in your mouth, but that might just be me.

The lawsuit is seeking $75,000. Mitchell allegedly took a swig of the cleaning solution thinking it was the coffee, which caused a “caustic, burning sensation” in his mouth down to his stomach, sending him into a coughing fit while presumably feeling like crap.

How did toxic chemicals end up in a Starbucks coffee cup?

While offhand it seems unlikely that this would just happen considering the liquid is blue, the lawsuit alleges that a Starbucks employee (who was new), didn’t realize the cleaner had been resting inside the coffee machine. The cleaner is designed to dissolve residue, so it’s supposed to sit for a while, to serve its purpose. The one safeguard to prevent service from that coffeemaker was to flag it with a flipped over coffee cup placed on top, which doesn’t seem like much. Combine that situation with an opaque cardboard coffee cup, and this spells out a perfect storm for disaster.

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It’s easy to see how a few oversights could cascade into a situation like this, unfortunately. From my experience in a kitchen, there are safeguards in place to prevent these sorts of issues with cleaning solutions, usually using clear plastic bottles with brightly colored liquid, or brightly colored plastic buckets that basically scream “don’t put me anywhere near food.”

Other instances of chemicals being served to customers

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened at Starbucks; the lawsuit states that two customers had been accidentally served Urnex in the past. One of the incidents happened in 2015.

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Earlier this year, Cracker Barrel was slapped with a whopping $9.4 million in damages from a similar incident from 2014. In that case, a customer was served a cleaning product called Eco San, which he mistook for a cup of ice water. A jury awarded the plaintiff $4.3 million after a 40 minute deliberation, and 10 minutes later, they added a punitive damages fee of $5 million on top of it.

Is this a likely occurrence at a restaurant? Of course not, otherwise you’d be hearing about this more frequently. But I’m guessing it’s not the last time it’ll happen to someone. Hopefully none of you end up with a bright blue cup of liquid instead of coffee.

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