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Court Won’t Revive $3M Starbucks Burn Claim

(CN) - A 76-year-old New York woman who severely burned her leg and foot with Starbucks tea failed to convince the 2nd Circuit to revive her $3 million personal injury claim against the coffee chain.

The federal appeals court in Manhattan upheld a federal judge's dismissal of Rachel Moltner's claim that the case deserved a state-court hearing because Starbucks had filed a petition for removal more than 30 days after receiving her complaint.

But the three-judge appeals panel joined other circuits in finding that the "removal clock" starts ticking only after a specific request for damages.

While trying to remove the lid from her Venti hot tea at her local Starbucks, Moltner spilled the tea on her left leg and foot. The burns required skin grafts, and her hospital stay added bed sores, a fractured sacrum and a herniated disc.

Moltner filed a personal injury complaint against Starbucks in July 2008, but neglected to include a request for damages.

When Starbucks responded to the lawsuit, it asked Moltner to specify her demand for damages.

Moltner responded with a request for $3 million, and in late October 2008 - about three months after Moltner first sued the company - Starbucks filed a notice of removal.

Moltner argued that the petition was untimely, but a district court judge denied her motion and ultimately dismissed her case.

On appeal, Moltner argued that Starbucks should have deduced from the description of her injuries that her demand would exceed $75,000 -- the jurisdictional threshold for removal.

But the 2nd Circuit agreed with Starbucks that "the removal clock did not begin to run until it received the first paper from which it could ascertain that the case was removable - specifically, Moltner's October 21, 2008 letter stating that she sought damages not to exceed $3 million."

The appellate panel joined the 8th Circuit in holding that "the removal clock does not start to run until the plaintiff serves the defendant with a paper that explicitly specifies the amount of monetary damages sought."

Moltner countered that such a rule would encourage "gamesmanship" by allowing a defendant to "delay serving a request for specification of the damages sought for up to a year while it tests the waters in state court, removing only if and when it determines that the state court is not a favorable forum for it."

The panel was not swayed by this argument and found that a "bright line rule" was more reasonable.

"Requiring a defendant to read the complaint and guess the amount of damages that the plaintiff seeks will create uncertainty and risks increasing the time and money spent on litigation," the court ruled. "Under Moltner's approach, if a defendant waits to remove until the damages have been specified, the parties will dispute, upon removal, whether the defendant should have known from the complaint that the jurisdictional threshold was met."

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