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A woman is suing McDonald's after being burned by hot coffee. It's not the first time

A sign is posted in front of a McDonald's restaurant on April 3 in San Pablo, Calif.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
A sign is posted in front of a McDonald's restaurant on April 3 in San Pablo, Calif.

Early on a Tuesday morning in June, Mable Childress ordered a cup of coffee from a McDonald's drive-thru in San Francisco.

The 85-year-old put the coffee in her vehicle's cup holder, drove to her foot doctor's office for an appointment and parked.

"As soon as she picked up the cup of coffee to drink it, since the lid wasn't put on correctly, all of the coffee spilled on her," her attorney, Dylan Hackett, said in an interview.

The coffee burned Childress on her stomach, groin and leg area and left scarring on her groin. When she returned to McDonald's to make a complaint, none of the three employees she spoke with filled out an incident report, Hackett said.

Now, Childress is suing the fast-food giant and one of its San Francisco franchises in California Superior Court, according to Hackett. They say workers were negligent for improperly securing Childress' coffee cup lid and that she continues to suffer from pain and emotional distress as a result of the incident.

McDonald's owner/operator Peter Ou said in a statement that he was reviewing the lawsuit and that his employees have to abide by safety rules.

"My restaurants have strict food safety protocols in place, including training crew to ensure lids on hot beverages are secure," Ou said. "We take every customer complaint seriously — and when Ms. Childress reported her experience to us later that day, our employees and management team spoke to her within a few minutes and offered assistance."

If any of this sounds familiar, it's because McDonald's faced a similar lawsuit in 1994 from an elderly woman who was burned by the company's hot coffee.

That case captured the national interest but was widely misunderstood, becoming the poster child for critics of frivolous lawsuits.

Liebeck v. McDonald's

In 1992, while sitting in a car in Albuquerque, N.M., 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was also burned by hot McDonald's coffee. She had placed the cup between her legs and removed the lid to add cream and sugar when the spill occurred, scalding her and causing third-degree burns.

Hoping to have her medical bills reimbursed, Liebeck reportedly offered to settle the lawsuit she filed against McDonald's for $20,000. But when the company only offered $800, the case went to court.

Attorneys showed graphic images of Liebeck's burns, and experts testified that McDonald's kept its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees — 30 to 40 degrees hotter than other companies — according to the American Museum of Tort Law. Testimony revealed that 700 other McDonald's customers also had been burned.

Ultimately the jury awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages, which was reduced to $160,000 because she was found to be partially responsible for the spill. They also suggested that McDonald's pay $2.7 million in punitive damages, a sum that was based on the revenue from two days of coffee sales.

The case immediately drew global attention. "Several days after the verdict, I had news crews from France, Japan, Germany, in my driveway, wanting to interview me. I mean, I was stunned," attorney Ken Wagner told the documentary company Retro Report.

The case was also widely misunderstood and, at worst, had its facts twisted. For example, Liebeck was not driving with a hot cup of coffee between her legs, as some said, but rather the car was parked.

Liebeck also did not walk away from the case with $3 million. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages to $480,000, and Liebeck and McDonald's ultimately reached an undisclosed settlement.

Still, critics cast Liebeck as a greedy opportunist and used the suit to push for so-called tort reform, a national effort to cap damages in personal injury lawsuits. The case also became a cultural punchline, popping up everywhere from an episode of Seinfeld to a song by country star Toby Keith.

Liebeck died in 2004.

What's different about this case?

While there are similarities between the two cases, Hackett, the attorney in the current lawsuit, said here are also some key differences.

Childress did not suffer third-degree burns and didn't require lengthy treatment in the hospital. Hackett has also not yet asked for a specific sum in damages.

Still, Hackett said the Liebeck case and its aftermath could have an impact on Childress's lawsuit. "Anytime an attorney looks at a case, they'll look at precedence that has been set," he said.

But Liebeck's case wasn't the only one against the fast-food giant, and it's not the first time this year that McDonald's has found itself in court over the temperature of its food.

In May, a South Florida jury found McDonald's and a franchise holder at fault after a hot Chicken McNugget fell on a 4-year-old girl's leg and left her with second-degree burns.

Hackett said Childress is hoping to get her medical bills reimbursed and ensure that this doesn't happen to other customers in the future.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]