The first time McDonald’s was sued over a hot coffee spill was back in the ‘90s when a customer ordered a cup of coffee from a drive-thru in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Stella Liebeck was with her grandson at the time, and after being handed her cup of coffee, they pulled into the parking lot so she could add her cream and sugar.
For whatever reason, their vehicle did not have any cupholders, so she held the cup between her knees to keep it steady. The coffee then spilled onto her legs, causing third-degree burns that would end up requiring extensive surgery to treat. To many people’s surprise, when she sued McDonald’s, she ended up being awarded almost US $3 million in damages. The incident has since sparked many debates on whether such a lawsuit (and similar ones to follow) actually justified or trivial.
Now, almost thirty years after Liebeck’s case, McDonald’s faces another lawsuit regarding a hot coffee spill. Lok Fung, a mental health support worker, is suing a franchise in Burnaby, B.C. after being burned by hot coffee. Fung alleges that on Jan 21, 2021, the worker passed the coffee cup to her from the drive-thru window without securing the lid properly. The hot coffee then spilled onto her, leaving significant burns on her left wrist and left thigh.
The lawsuit argues that McDonald’s was negligent in this incident on multiple fronts. It accuses the restaurant of 1) serving the coffee at a temperature that was too high to drink safely, 2) not warning Fung that the drink was “extremely hot,” and 3) not training its employees well enough to ensure the customer’s safety. At this time, the Burnaby restaurant has not yet responded to Fung’s claim in court.
Fung’s case differs slightly from Liebeck’s case in that the worker’s actions resulted in injuries in the former, whereas the customer’s actions resulted in injuries in the latter. Still, in Liebeck’s case, the courts still found that McDonald’s was liable for serving coffee at an unsafe temperature and ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiff. It should also be noted that Liebeck’s injuries were reportedly extensive—she needed to undergo skin graft surgeries to treat burns that covered 16 percent of her body.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that hot coffee spills could pose a problem for fast-food chains if they are not careful. Starbucks and Tim Hortons have also faced lawsuits regarding hot coffee spills before, but the courts did not always rule in favor of the customers.