A Not So Happy Meal - McDonalds Wins Appeal of Spilled Coffee Case

A patron of a McDonald’s drive-thru sued the restaurant to recover for injuries he sustained after three cups of coffee fell out of a cup holder and spilled onto his lap. The patron brought claims against McDonald’s under the Louisiana Products Liability Act (LPLA) and in negligence. The product liability claim was based on plaintiff’s allegations that McDonald’s (1) overheated the coffee to an unsafe temperature in deviation from its internal standards and (2) failed to provide adequate warnings of the coffee’s temperature. The negligence claim was based on the alleged failure of McDonald’s employee to securely place the coffee cups in the cup holder.

The trial court granted McDonald’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the patron’s claims. On appeal, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit noted that under the LPLA product manufactures can be held liable for damages caused by an “unreasonably dangerous” product when the product is being used normally (i.e. used for its intended purpose). Turning to the patron’s claim regarding the unsafe temperature of the coffee, the court found that the evidence failed to show that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the coffee was unreasonably hot. Specifically, the court noted that the patron did not produce evidence of any standards regarding coffee temperature or that McDonald’s had deviated from those standards. Furthermore, the only evidence regarding the temperature of the coffee was a statement from the patron himself and photographs of the burn injury. The court found the photographic evidence inadequate because courts cannot presume the unreasonably dangerous characteristic of a product (the coffee’s temperature) solely on the fact that the product caused an injury.

Regarding the patron’s claim that McDonald’s failed to adequately warn him of the temperature of the coffee, the court recognized that manufactures have a duty to provide adequate warning of dangers inherent in the normal use of a product that are “not within the knowledge of or obvious to an ordinary user.” In this case, however, the court determined that the patron was a “sophisticated user” because he frequently bought coffee from McDonald’s. As a sophisticated user, the patron was presumed to have knowledge of the danger of hot coffee the restaurant did not have a duty to provide an additional warning to him.

With regard to the patron’s general negligence claim, the court established that restaurants do have a duty to use reasonable care to protect their customers. According to the court, McDonald’s had a duty to handle its cup holders and “to go” paper products being served out of the drive-thru window in a way that did not unreasonably endanger patrons.  Nevertheless, the court held that the patron did not provide sufficient evidence to show that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether McDonald’s had breached its duty. The court based its determination on the fact that the patron’s only evidence regarding the improper handling of the cup holders was a hearsay statement made by the patron in which he claimed that a McDonald’s employee had told him that she failed to push the cups down into the tray. Furthermore, the patron did not testify that he ever personally saw that the cups were improperly secured in the cup holder, coupled with the fact that the patron had successfully taken the tray from the employee and had placed it on his lap before the cups fell.

Take-Away: The mere fact that a product caused an injury does not mean that it is unreasonably dangerous. Restaurant owners do, however, have a duty to use reasonable care to protect their customers when serving them food or beverages out of a drive-thru window. Such owners would be well served to take reasonable steps to ensure that their employees follow proper procedures related to the handling and serving of such products.

This article was co-authored by Matthew Averill, a 2015 summer associate at Irwin Fritchie Urquhart & Moore LLC.