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.
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.
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.