You Can Now Sue Starbucks for Under-Filling Your Drink

A federal judge ruled this month that two plaintiffs can pursue a lawsuit against coffee giant Starbucks. The crime? Starbucks under-filling your morning caffeine jolt.

A Starbucks under-filling lawsuit, taking place in San Francisco, alleges that Starbucks lattes are 25% under-filled, calling the act “fraud.” This is more than just variations from different baristas; it’s the result of a revised recipe to save the franchise money.

Since 2009, Starbucks has ordered its employees to use less milk in its lattes. The lawsuit argues that baristas are trained to fill milk pitchers too low and leave as much as ¼ of empty space in drink cups. “Caffe Latte” is Italian for “milk coffee.” In skimping on the main ingredient, the lawsuit argues, Starbucks is falsely advertising—even committing an act tantamount to fraud.

The plaintiffs, Siera Strumlauf of San Francisco and Benjamin Robles of Carlsbad, allege in their suit that the policy short-changes consumers. Cups for Tall, Grande, and Venti beverages are meant to hold 12, 16, and 20 ounces, respectively. In under-filling drinks, Starbucks has saved millions of dollars at the expense of its customers.

A Short-Changing Experiment

When the lawsuit was first filed, Today show reporter Jeff Rossen sought to investigate its merits. He bought Grande-sized lattes from six different Starbucks locations and measured them in laboratory-grade beakers, after allowing the foam to settle. Rossen found that none of the drinks were 16 ounces as advertised. One, in fact, measured 12 ounces—the size of a Tall.

Starbucks called the experiment unscientific and without merit. But US District Judge Thelton Henderson disagrees.

Hearing the Case

Henderson ruled that the plaintiffs could pursue a lawsuit claiming Starbucks was using false advertising and committing fraud because of their its recipe. It’s now a proposed nationwide class-action suit.

While Henderson didn’t rule on the specific merits of the case, he did write in his opinion that the case had legal grounds. It was improbable, he argues, that the majority of the latte-drinking public was aware of this policy—and plausible that they believed a Grande-sized beverage actually contained 16 ounces of fluid.

What Is a Class-Action Suit?

A suit like this one involves multiple parties that have suffered from similar circumstances, known as a “class-action” suit. Attorneys often use class action suits when the damage suffered is too minor to recover damages from one incident alone. However, this suit against Starbucks suggests a pattern of behavior that has affected millions of individuals.

What Are the Legal Repercussions?

We typically think of fraud as a criminal charge, but in this case, Starbucks hasn’t exactly broken the law. They’ll face a civil suit on behalf of anyone who’s purchased a latte, and, if they lose, the damages could be extensive.

The law firm representing the plaintiffs alleges that Starbucks is violating its implied and express warranties, which fall under the realm of product liability. An “implied warranty” states a product must reasonably conform to its buyer’s expectations. In this case, under-filling a 16-ounce drink may well violate that promise.

The lawsuit is now open to U.S. Class members who have purchased a Starbucks latte, which means most of us can probably opt into the lawsuit if we choose. The amount of the settlement, however, remains to be seen.

Have You Been a Victim of a Defective Product?

The Starbucks under-filling lawsuit provides a good example of just how important it is for merchants to fairly market their products. If you feel you’ve been a victim of false advertising, you may be eligible for compensation. Contact our office for more information and to schedule a free case evaluation to see if you qualify.