An Oregon woman has filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s for $1.56 million after her 14-year-old daughter allegedly suffered serious burns after being scalded by a cup of hot water the restaurant served.
According to the claim, the 14-year-old suffered second-degree burns on her abdomen and lower body in July 2017, after she was served water at an “unreasonably dangerous temperature.” The lawsuit does not explain whether the teen spilled the water on herself or someone spilled it on her. It also does state exactly how hot the water was or how long the teen was exposed. As a reference point, once water is heated past 120 degrees, serious burns can occur rapidly. Second-degree burns can occur in just three seconds of exposure to 140-degree water, which is well below water’s boiling point of 212 degrees.
As a result of the burns, the teen allegedly experienced significant and extensive scarring. The lawsuit seeks $10,000 in medical bills and relates expenses, $50,000 in future expenses, and $1.5 million for pain and suffering.
This lawsuit calls to mind the famous 1990 case of Stella Liebeck, who suffered third-degree burns as a result of spilling hot McDonald’s coffee on her legs. Liebeck’s burns were so severe that she required skin grafts on her thighs, and they were almost instantaneous. Liebeck was only looking to recoup the expenses of her out-of-pocket medical care. However, McDonald’s refused on multiple occasions, forcing Liebeck to file a lawsuit against the fast-food chain. The case was brought before a jury, who awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages and medical expenses, as well as $2.7 million in punitive damages. The judgment was ultimately reduced for an undisclosed amount. In the end, McDonald’s admitted to keeping their coffee at a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees. For reference, the optimal drinking temperature for hot beverages is around 140-150 degrees.
McDonald’s knew about the risks posed by its coffee for more than a decade before Stella’s injuries. Despite clear notice of a public safety problem, despite paying millions of dollars to settle multiple ‘hot coffee’ cases, McDonald’s still serves its coffee at scalding temperatures. And here’s an even scarier statistic: The vast majority of cases involving individuals who have been burned by hot coffee at McDonald’s go unreported every year. How many “hot water” cases have also gone unreported?
Liebeck’s experience was used as propaganda to promote tort reform. The US Chamber of Commerce used this poor woman’s case to suggest that ‘frivolous lawsuits’ were clogging the system and that damages caps were required. These claims, perpetuated by corporate greed, reveal a larger pattern of corporate behavior that put consumers at unreasonable risks. Tort reform advocates (lobbyists for big business and insurance companies) use such cases to promote to the public the false notion that our country is under attack by frivolous lawsuits. They are lying to you! While our system may not be perfect, trial by jury is a constitutional right, guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment, and works more often than not. Juries and jury verdicts are this country’s most important safety tools. More than simply compensating victims, meritorious lawsuits often force corporate defendants to change or modify bad behaviors that cause harm or injury.
There is no ‘jackpot justice’ in America. Serious jury verdicts result from serious injuries caused by gross misconduct. If you are reading this from your wheelchair or while viewing hideous scars in your mirror as the result of corporate negligence, if you face a lifetime of pain and physical challenges, you know the importance of our civil justice system. I wish that the rest of us could envision your life and your pain and come to sensible conclusions about the system. Would you trade your health or well being for money? Think about that the next time you hear about some ‘funny’ case.
Experienced attorney, lawsuit funding expert, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. The series consists of "Betrayal of Faith", "Betrayal of Justice", and "Betrayal in Blue", with a fourth book due out in 2019. You can learn more about these topical political, legal thrillers at markmbello.com. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.