‘Hot Coffee’ Lawsuits Turn Up the Heat on Fast Food Chains

Posted January 28, 2013 in Personal Injury by

Open fast food coffee cup in a drink carrier

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

A new lawsuit accuses Burger King of serving scalding hot coffee that caused serious bodily injury when spilled.

Kathleen Perez picked up her coffee at the drive-through window in Metairie, La., when the lid popped off as a Burger King employee handed the cup to her. According to her lawsuit, the spill burned her arms, chest and stomach, causing permanent scarring and discoloration.

In two other lawsuits filed in 2012, McDonald’s is blamed for serving coffee so hot that it burned a 4-year-old girl in Chicago and a 35-year-old woman in Rockford, Ill. in separate incidents.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: here we go again.

Ever since an elderly New Mexico woman sued McDonald’s in 1994 and won a multi-million dollar jury award, her case has been the poster child for frivolous lawsuits and American litigiousness. Tort reform groups seized on the case to gather support to pass laws that limit consumers’ rights to sue and win damages in court.

But let’s clear up some facts about that McDonald’s case:

  • The plaintiff, Stella Liebeck, was in a parked car when she took the cover off the coffee that spilled and burned her – she was not driving;
  • Liebeck, 81, suffered third-degree burns on her inner thighs, buttocks and vagina, requiring multiple skin grafts;
  • The coffee was 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit;
  • McDonald’s had received over 700 complaints from customers who were burned by hot coffee before Liebeck;
  • Liebeck offered to settle the case with McDonald’s for the cost of her medical bills — around $20,000 at the time — but the company refused, making a low-ball counter-offer of $800;
  • The jury’s award of $2.7 million in punitive damages was equivalent to 2 days of McDonald’s coffee sales;
  • The judge reduced the award to $480,000 after trial;
  • Liebeck and McDonald’s settled for a confidential amount in the end.

Attorney Stephen Conroy

In the new lawsuit against Burger King, the customer’s lawyer, Stephen Conroy, was quick to point out that his client, like Liebeck, is not in the business of suing and has never brought a lawsuit before.

“My client, Kathleen Perez, has never filed a claim in her life. She is not in the habit of spilling hot coffee all over herself,” he told Lawyers.com.

He said Burger King was negligent for serving coffee at extremely hot temperatures and that the employee should have made sure the lid was on tight before passing it through the window.

He also said the lids are not heavy-duty like the kind used at Starbucks or other high-end coffee shops.

“They’re doing it on the cheap, plus the coffee is scalding. You combine those two things together, and it’s just wrong,” said Conroy. “It’s an accident that could have been avoided.”

He added that the company appears to be willing to settle the case out of court and that his client, a teacher, is seeking only medical bills and pain and suffering, not lost wages.

Burger King’s attorney, Christian Bogart, did not return a voice message left at his office.

If the case does go to court, Conroy said photos of his client’s first-degree burns on large areas of her torso will help prove his case to a jury.

He may be right.

In the documentary film “Hot Coffee” that looks at the Liebeck v. McDonald’s case, people interviewed on the street thought the notorious case was frivolous – until they saw the photos of Liebeck’s injuries – charred and blackened skin that looked like someone took a blow torch to her thighs and genitals.

“Wow,” said one pedestrian. “Yes, if I saw injuries like that I would definitely take a different view of [the case] from what I hear in the media.”

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