Starbucks Corp. has appealed a nearly $9 million verdict rendered against it after a customer was struck by a vehicle in the drive-through lane at a Fernandina Beach, Florida, coffee shop.
The driver and the property owner settled claims against them for an undisclosed amount, the court record shows. The victim also sued her own insurer, State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance, for uninsured motorists coverage and bad faith, then settled that claim for an undisclosed sum.
But the coffee-brewing giant was hit with what’s being called another “nuclear verdict,” one of several seven- and eight-figure judgments that have been handed down in Florida in recent months over alleged negligence, premises liability, inadequate security or dram shop liquor liability.
In the Starbucks case, a 72-year-old woman, Sherry Gold, was injured in her foot, ankle and knee when she walked across the drive-through lane in 2019 en route to her own car, and was hit by an SUV. Her complaint argued that the site lines were blocked by a pillar and that Starbucks had created an inherently unsafe situation that forces store patrons to walk in front of cars. The company did not provide a marked or protected cross-walk area in the drive-through lane.
Starbucks’ attorneys said that the store area, like that of other drive-through restaurants, could not be configured in a way to prevent all automobile-pedestrian encounters, and that Gold and the driver should have been paying better attention.
One of the attorneys for the victim was Curry Pajcic, of Jacksonville, who was also one of the lead lawyers in the famous, 2021 truck accident case that resulted in a $1 billion verdict, the largest auto accident verdict in Florida history. The jury in that case found that the driver for one company was on his cell phone, was over the allowed number of driving hours, and did not have a commercial license. After the accident caused a pileup, another truck driver failed to slow down and slammed into the cars, killing an 18-year-old. The jury granted $100 million to the parents, along with $900 million in punitive damages.
Smaller, but still headline-grabbing verdicts and settlements have been reached this year in Florida. In June, a bistro in Miami was hit with a $96 million judgment after attorneys said the establishment served liquor to an inebriated man, who then caused an accident, killing a young woman and catastrophically injuring her brother.
And the Haggard Law Firm in Coral Gables in July reported a $2 million settlement against a gas station owner in Miami Gardens, after a 16-year-old was shot and killed in a car in the parking lot. The plaintiffs argued that the store was negligently operated, poorly lit, and the clerk’s view was blocked by boards and signs.
The owners’ insurer, AmGuard Insurance, paid the policy limits of $1 million. Another entity defendant, unnamed by the law firm, paid another $1 million pre-suit settlement.
In a similar case, Haggard in June reported a $1 million settlement after a man was shot outside a pop-up nightclub in Brevard County. A group of men shot into the crowd, injuring Levontay Thomas in the leg. The plaintiff’s attorneys charged that the shopping center did not provide adequate security measures.
In the Starbucks suit, the injured woman sought damages to cover future medical expenses, pain and suffering, and attorneys’ fees.
“Starbucks had a right and duty to exercise reasonable care in the design, construction, inspection, maintenance and/or operation of parking lot/drive through/pedestrian areas … ” the complaint reads. “Starbucks not only knew its foot-traffic customers parked and walked through to get into and leave the store, but … also knew its drive-thru customers were driving and exiting with food and drink just handed to them.”
Gold held an uninsured/underinsured motorists’ policy from State Farm, with policy limits of $250,000. The insurer offered no more than $106,500, the lawsuit said. That wasn’t enough because Gold needed a wheelchair after the incident because of her broken bones and required extensive home care, her attorneys said.
Pajcic offered to settle with State Farm for $250,000. After the insurance company would not settle, the lawyers brought the bad-faith claim against it.
The jury verdict form did not mention punitive damages but said that Starbucks must pay $970,000 for future medical expenses, $1.5 million for pain and suffering in the past and $6.5 million for future suffering, inconvenience, loss of capacity and aggravation of a physical defect.
The judge denied Starbucks’ motion for a new trial. The coffee shop company has appealed to Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals but has yet to pay the full filing fee. The appeals court said Starbucks now has less than two weeks to pay $300 or the appeal will be denied.
Starbucks’ insurer was not named in the suit. The corporation owns Olympic Casualty Insurance Co., which provides general liability and workers’ compensation coverage for Starbucks, according to news reports. But it was unclear from the court file if Olympic was the insurer in the Fernandina Beach incident.