Starbucks lawsuit over underfilled lattes moves forward

Starbucks Lawsuit Over 'Underfilled' Lattes Will Continue

Starbucks faces claims that it is underfilling its drinks.

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) may be shortchanging its customers.

A federal judge has allowed a lawsuit to move forward alleging that the coffee chain has been underfilling its lattes. In the suit, plaintiffs Siera Strumlauf and Benjamin Robles charge that Starbucks advertises 12-ounce, 16-ounce, and 20-ounce serving sizes, but trains its staff to make the drinks in a way that leaves them 25% short of the advertised amount.

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in San Francisco dismissed Starbucks' efforts to have the case thrown out. That's a blow to the coffee chain, which noted in its motion to dismiss (link opens PDF) that "Plaintiffs lack standing to assert any of their claims for relief because they have not alleged actual injury."

In the motion, Starbucks said that its drinks meet the standards of "reasonable consumers," though it did not directly address how it makes its lattes or exactly how much liquid they contain.

What is being charged?

The proposed class action lawsuit, which was first reported by Consumerist, claims that Starbucks baristas use pitchers for heating milk with "fill to" lines that are not high enough. It also claims that they are taught to leave 1/4 inch of free space in each cup for foamed milk. The plaintiffs charge that foamed milk should not count toward the total amount of liquid in the drink.

"Plaintiffs allege that Starbucks lattes are uniformly underfilled using three different theories," the judge wrote. "First, Plaintiffs assert that the milk foam, which makes up the top layer of the latte, should not be counted toward the total volume of the latte, because according to the 'food science community' and the 'weights and measures community,' the industry standard is to let the foam dissipate, or to measure the drink without the foam."

The judge did deny the plaintiffs request for injunctive relief, which could have forced Starbucks to immediately change how it makes or advertises its lattes. In denying that request, he noted that in order to grant an injunction, the lawsuit would have to show that the people involved were likely to be wronged again in a similar way or that they are "threatened with a concrete and particularized legal harm."

See photos of Starbucks cups through the years:

Starbucks cups, different looks through the years
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Starbucks cups, different looks through the years
CHENGDU, SICHUAN PROVINCE, CHINA - 2015/09/13: Coffee cup on table in a Starbucks cafe. Starbucks is streamlining the ordering process so customers are able to get that cup of coffee faster than usual. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A cappuccino coffee sits in a Starbucks Corp. Reserve cup, used for specialist coffee, on the counter at a Starbucks coffee shop in London, U.K., on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015. Coffee futures fell the most in seven months after Colombia announced measures that will increase exports, spurred by the plight of farmers in the country who are dealing with drought conditions linked to the El Nino weather pattern. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BEIJING, CHINA - 2014/12/24: A paper coffee cup and Starbucks logo. Starbucks will continue its expansion in China in 2015 and double its China store count to 3,000 by 2019. In its first-quarter fiscal report, the coffee giant shows optimistic expectation for its robust expansion plans in 2015. (Photo by Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Starbucks employee writes a message on a cup of freshly brewed coffee at a local store in Washington, DC on December 26, 2012. Starbucks stirred the political pot Wednesday by urging its baristas to write 'come together' on its cups as a way to pressure US lawmakers to compromise on a deal to avert a year-end fiscal crisis. Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said the American coffee giant was recommending its first-ever message on the side of tall, grande and venti (small, medium and large) drinks sold at its Washington stores as a way to help break the capital's gridlock on the so-called 'fiscal cliff.' Lawmakers and the White House have less than a week to work out a deal aimed at preventing tax hikes from hitting all Americans and a series of deep, mandated spending cuts from kicking in beginning January 1. AFP PHOTO/Eva HAMBACH (Photo credit should read EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Starbucks coffee cup is seen in this photo taken August 12, 2009. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
MIAMI - JANUARY 18: In this photo illustration, the new Starbucks 31-ounce Trenta size ice coffee is seen on the right next to a tall cup of Starbucks coffee on January 18, 2011 in Miami, Florida. Starbucks rolled out the newest member of its lineup of drinks which is available only for Tazo shaken iced teas, iced tea lemonades and iced coffees. (Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - SEPTEMEBR 26: Starbucks Coffe Company's news product 'Starbucks Discoveries'(Espressso (L), Latte (R)) are seen during a preview party on September 26, 2005 in Tokyo, Japan. 'Starbucks Discoveries' is the company's first chilled cup coffee product which will be available at convenience stores on September 27 in Japan with the same coffee beans used at Starbucks stores. (Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images)

What does this mean for Starbucks?

While the idea of this case may seem silly, the reality is that it could be quite expensive for Starbucks. If the chain loses, in theory it could not only owe damages for customers served underfilled lattes in the past, it could also have to change how it makes the drinks going forward.

In addition to having to change its equipment and train its staff to make lattes in a new way (or modify the advertising of its sizes) Starbucks would also have to actually use more liquid. If the drinks are truly underfilled by 25%, that's a significant amount of added milk, water, and coffee, which would add to its costs.

Starbucks has continually denied that its drinks are underfilled and made a statement to Consumerist after the judge's ruling was released.

"We were pleased with the court's decision to limit the scope of the claims and believe that this lawsuit and the recently filed similar actions are without merit," a Starbucks spokesperson told the website. "All of our handcrafted beverages are made in accordance with our customers' preferences. If a customer is not satisfied with their beverage preparation, we will gladly remake it. We will be prepared to defend our case in court."

The chain is also facing a similar lawsuit which alleges that its cold drinks contain too much ice.

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RELATED: Compare the price of coffee at 10 major chains:

Price of coffee at 10 fast-food places
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Price of coffee at 10 fast-food places


McCafe premium roast coffee, small: $1.00

Burger King

Smooth roast coffee, small: $1.00

Krispy Kreme

Coffee (smooth, rich, or decaf), small: $1.59

Dunkin' Donuts

Hot coffee, small: $1.59

Tim Hortons

Coffee (original blend, dark roast or decaf): $1.59

Caribou Coffee

Coffee of the day, small: $1.69

Panera Bread

Hot coffee, small: $1.89


Freshly brewed coffee, tall: $1.85

Bruegger's Bagels 

House blend coffee, small: $1.99


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