British Columbia

Decades after the infamous 'hot coffee' case, McDonald's is being sued over another scalding spill

Nearly 30 years after the infamous "hot coffee" lawsuit was settled, a mental health support worker has filed a claim against a McDonald's location in Burnaby, B.C., after being burned by hot coffee last year.

Customer claims drive-thru worker in Burnaby, B.C., didn't attach lid properly before passing her the cup

A brown coffee cup with the word 'McCafe' written along the side is perched on a stone slab.
A coffee from a McDonalds fast food restaurant is, once again, the centre of a lawsuit against the ubiquitous franchise after a B.C. woman alleged the chain and one of its employees were negligent. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In the early 1990s, Stella Liebeck ordered a fresh cup of coffee at a McDonald's drive-thru in Albuquerque, N.M. Her grandson, who was driving, pulled into the parking lot so Liebeck could add her cream and sugar.

In the absence of a cupholder, Liebeck steadied the cup between her knees.

She spilled the coffee, suffered third-degree burns, sued the franchise and was later awarded nearly $2.9 million US in damages — roughly $5 million in present day money.

The case became a nationwide lightning rod for the debate around frivolous litigation.

But nearly three decades after Liebeck settled her case, lawsuits over McDonald's hot coffee are still reaching the courts.

A mental health support worker has filed a claim against one of the chain's locations in Burnaby, B.C., after being burned by hot coffee last year.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday said Lok Fung ordered her drink from the drive-thru on Still Creek Drive on Jan. 20, 2021. The claim alleged the worker passed the cup through the window without putting the lid on properly and let go before Fung could grab it.

"The cup of scalding hot coffee then spilled on [Fung]," the lawsuit read.

A food service worker hands a McDonald's branded cup to a driver through a drive-thru window.
The most recent complaint against McDonald's claims a Burnaby outlet served coffee at too high a temperature, didn't warn customers it would be 'extremely hot' and didn't train its employees well enough. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Fung said her left wrist and left thigh were burned.

McDonald's is being accused of negligence. The lawsuit claimed the restaurant served coffee at too high a temperature and didn't warn Fung it would be "extremely hot."

It also said the chain didn't train its employees well enough.

McDonald's has not filed a response to the claim in court. CBC News has contacted the franchise for comment.

A man walks past a large puddle, in which the reflection of a McDonald's restaurant is visible with clouds in the sky and some flags off to the right.
The McDonald's fast food restaurant is located on Still Creek Drive in the Willingdon Heights area of Burnaby. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hot beverages subject of lawsuits for years

In Liebeck's case, some argued she was responsible because she shouldn't have been balancing the coffee in the first place. Others saw the lawsuit as a well justified David and Goliath battle against one of the world's most recognizable fast-food chains.

Courts found McDonald's carried the majority of liability for serving coffee that was too hot. A judge later reduced Liebeck's award to $640,000 US.

Liebeck required extensive skin grafts and surgery to treat burns covering 16 per cent of her body. She died a decade after settling her case.

Other lawsuits centred on hot drinks have cropped up over the years. A woman in Surrey, B.C., sued McDonald's after a drive-thru spill in 2011. Another woman lost a lawsuit against Starbucks over a cup of hot tea in Sechelt, B.C., in 2017.

A woman from Winnipeg who suffered second- and third-degree burns after an extra-large cup of Tim Hortons green tea spilled on her lap in 2013 called for national regulations governing the temperatures of hot beverages at restaurants.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk

Staff writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can send story tips to rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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