News from the Hot Coffee Front: McDonald’s Settles Canadian Lawsuit

In recent weeks, no beverage on earth has been more widely discussed, analyzed, and investigated than hot coffee.  Indeed, it has been the subject of a recent HBO documentary and a point of contention on the many legal blogs that elected to review the film.  Just as the the media frenzy had finally begun to subside, hot coffee litigation is once again back in the news. It never seems to end, does it?

The Toronto Sun recently reported that McDonald’s has settled a claim with a Quebec woman after hot coffee spilled onto her leg back in May.  Reportedly, the woman ordered several cups of coffee from a McDonald’s drive-through.  As the attendant handed her the beverages,  the cardboard carrying tray allegedly buckled, spilling three cups of coffee into her car and onto her person.  Following the spill, she was transported by ambulance to an area hospital for second-degree burns.  She demanded $12,313.24, and the fast food company’s insurer honored the request.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and claim this settlement is evidence that McDonald’s serves an unreasonably dangerous product.  There are clearly other factors at play here to explain McDonald’s willingness to expeditiously settle this woman’s claim.  First, there is no real dispute among credible sources that hot coffee can cause burns when spilled onto someone.  Second, after all of the recent bad press, McDonald’s may have an incentive to tidily dispose of such matters. Let’s remember: McDonald’s has taken its share of criticism for refusing to settle medical claims due to hot coffee burns.  Be it right or wrong, McDonald’s needs to temper the potential for any additional bad press.

Finally, this is not your typical Stella Liebeck-style hot coffee case.  The Quebec woman – the potential plaintiff – was not herself the spiller of the coffee.  Not only was the coffee reportedly spilled by a McDonald’s employee, but also, the spilling may have been the result of an apparently dysfunctional carrying tray.  Obviously, the facts are subject to discovery, and there may be a number of unknown factors, but at present, there is no evidence from the Toronto Sun article suggesting the woman played any role in the spill apart from being the victim.  Even if McDonald’s maintained the position, often asserted here at Abnormal Use, that coffee is a beverage meant to be served hot, it still must account for the possible negligence of its own  employee and the reportedly defective tray it chose to carry said beverage.

Nevertheless, this case may be exploited to advance the questionable proposition that hot coffee is, by its nature, unreasonably dangerous and defective.  Let us remember, however, that coffee is meant to be served hot and when it is spilled, it will burn.  That is simply the nature of the product.