A fast-food giant has once again found itself in hot water over a coffee, calling to mind a historic case in its not-so-distant past.
On Sept. 19, an Alabama woman filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s after claiming she was served a cup of coffee that contained chemicals she says have damaged her throat and organs and will require extensive medical care and surgery. The plaintiff, named Sherry Head, said after she realized something was wrong with her coffee, she asked for help from McDonald’s employees — and was denied. KTLA first reported on the lawsuit.
According to Head and her legal team, the incident in question happened on Dec. 21, 2020 when she was in a McDonald’s drive-thru in Dothan, Alabama. Head said that from her car, she ordered a Caramel Macchiato at the drive-thru speaker and heard an employee say that coffee was unavailable because the machine was being cleaned.
Head said she then heard someone else in the background say, “No, it’s ready to go!” before the employee she was speaking to told her she could order the drink after all, so she did.
After receiving her order through the drive-thru window, Head said she pulled forward in her car and took a sip of the drink, which caused her “to experience a burning and numbing sensation in her mouth and throat,” according to the legal filing. Investigating the cup further, Head said she removed the lid and saw that it appeared to be some kind of chemical rather than coffee.
“Plaintiff pulled back through the drive-through line and told employees what had happened. The manager screamed to employees inside the restaurant ‘I told y’all you have to be more careful about that!’” reads the lawsuit. “The manager then turned back to the Plaintiff and told her it was ‘fine.’”
Head said she then asked to see the bottle’s label of the chemical that she received in her cup and asked what she should do to get it out of her system, but the manager refused. According to the lawsuit, Head asked employees to call 911 or poison control for help, but the manager on duty refused to do so and “slammed” the drive-thru window shut, forcing her to call herself.
Head said McDonald’s staff also refused to give paramedics access to the bottle in question so they might have a better idea of how to treat her.
“It was terrifying. I drank a liquid chemical and it seemed like no one cared,” said Head in a statement released by her law team Baxley Maniscalco Attorneys at Law.
Following the incident, Head said that doctors have diagnosed her with scarring and narrowing in her throat, difficulty swallowing, chronic gastritis, acid reflux and abdominal pain caused by inflammation and erosion of the stomach.
She also said that she may have to have surgery on her throat in the future to repair the damage and preserve her ability to swallow. In addition, Head claims she has been repeatedly ignored by McDonald’s ownership in her requests for them to “make this right without litigation,” citing medical bills she’s incurred in the time since.
According to the legal filing, Head and her lawyers are calling for $3 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages for a total of $13 million total in compensation.
TODAY Food reached out to McDonald’s for comment, and a spokesperson responded with a statement from Gerry Murphy, the owner and operator of the Dothan franchise:
“The health and safety of our customers and employees is always a top priority. Immediately upon learning of this concern, we conducted a thorough investigation to understand the facts. We are aware of the complaint filed in the circuit court of Houston County, Alabama.”
The suit outlines 10 other publicly reported incidents since 2013 of McDonald’s patrons being served chemicals in their beverages, including a 2015 incident where a police officer named Paul Watkins was allegedly served iced tea with oven degreaser, a 2018 incident where a man named Lee Graves was allegedly served a Coke in the McDonald’s drive-thru that contained a bleach pod that he drank, and a 2016 incident where a Utah father named Trevor Walker claimed he was was served a Diet Coke that contained a synthetic heroin substitute called suboxone, among others.
There’s also the notorious case of the woman who sued McDonald’s over hot coffee and won. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman received 3rd degree burns from a McDonald’s coffee spilled in her lap that was 190 F.
Though Liebeck received significant injuries requiring hospitalization and skin grafts, the media at the time focused on the punitive damages she received as a result of the suit because it was so large: $2.7 million. The case forced McDonald’s to serve its coffee 10 degrees cooler, but sullied Liebeck’s reputation and followed her for the rest of her life.