The McDonald’s “hot coffee” case is often pointed at as the poster child for frivolous lawsuits, at least by tort reformers. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the actual details of that case, or the severe injuries that Stella Liebeck suffered as the result of the cup of McDonald’s coffee that spilled in her lap—coffee that wasn’t just hot, but was actually scalding. It is important to note the actual facts of the case– much of which was left out of most stories you will find on the Internet or elsewhere—before writing Stella’s case off as a “frivolous lawsuit”.
Stella was a 79-year-old grandmother at the time of the incident, and she was riding in her grandson’s car. Her grandson had pulled over to the side of the road to allow Stella to add cream and sugar to her coffee. The car was not moving, as many tort-reform hawks would like the public to believe. When Stella pulled the lid off of the coffee cup, the exceedingly hot coffee spilled onto her lap and onto the seat beneath her. She was wearing cotton jogging pants. McDonald’s admitted that the coffee was served at a scalding 190 degrees—hot enough to cause third degree burns within 2-7 seconds (according to expert testimony). She did, in fact, suffer serious burns to her thighs, buttocks, and genitals. She was taken to the hospital, where doctors determined that she had suffered third-degree burns. She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent painful skin grafting. Thereafter, she underwent two years of treatment. Although McDonald’s admitted that they knew the cup of coffee was exceedingly hot, they tried to cover up for their reckless conduct by claiming that they purposefully served the coffee at a high temperature because company research showed that customers want to drive a distance before drinking the coffee. However, their own research also indicated that some customers intended to drink the coffee immediately after purchase. So what was it? Well, the truth is that McDonald’s had known for over a decade that their coffee was burning people (over 700 claims, some including third degree burns) and yet did nothing about it.
Now, McDonald’s is facing another similar suit. Except the dangerously hot food isn’t coffee, it’s a grease-filled fried chicken sandwich. Specifically, when Frank Sutton took a bite into the sandwich, scalding grease “flew all over his mouth” according to another diner who witnessed the incident. To ease the burn, Sutton’s wife attempted to apply ice from her drink to his lips, but they blistered anyway and Mr. Sutton proceeded to the counter to complain to an employee. The employee’s response was “this is what happens [to the sandwiches] when they aren’t drained completely”. The next morning, Mr. Sutton discovered that his lips had bled on his pillow and seven months later his lips still hadn’t healed. He was even forced to avoid particular work assignments that would worsen his condition, since his job required a lot of time outdoors. As a result, Mr. Sutton sued McDonald’s and the local franchisee for his medical bills, pain and suffering and lost wages. However, a federal district court originally dismissed his case, ruling that he failed to prove what standard of care McDonald’s was required to meet in handling its food. Despite that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the decision and reinstated the suit, arguing that if the account of the incident is true, then it could constitute a violation of Virginia’s food safety laws. It will be up to a jury now to decide. While we don’t know the final outcome of the case, we can surely expect that critics of so-called “frivolous lawsuits” will be quick to jump all over Mr. Sutton the same way they did to Stella Liebeck.
recently named in the 2009 edition of Best Lawyer's In America, David Mittleman has been representing seriously injured people since 1985. A partner with Church Wyble PC—a division of Grewal Law PLLC—Mr. Mittleman and his partners focus on medical malpractice, wrongful death, car accidents, slip and falls, nursing home injury, pharmacy/pharmacist negligence and disability claims.