The next time you order a hot beverage from your favorite fast food restaurant or coffee establishment, examine your cup for words cautioning you about the beverage you are going to consume being hot. In case you have never noticed these words before, they are actually a legal warning by the company to the consumer regarding a known danger of the product. By placing these words on the container, the company is warning the consumer about the temperature of the beverage. However, when temperatures of beverages and food are so hot as to become an inherent danger to the consumer by the very degree of temperature, they can be deemed more hot than reasonable, a danger to the customer, and a breach of a legal duty by the company.
According to a recent article by the Cook County Record, a lawsuit has been filed against Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant in Cook County Circuit Court for injuries caused by their chili con queso which the legal claim calls unreasonably hot. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff picked up a carry-out order from a local Pepe’s restaurant and placed the order of chili con queso between her legs as to prevent it from tipping over. The chili con queso was inside a plastic container inside of a white paper bag. However, during the drive the queso spilled from the container, which caused the paper bag between her legs to dissolve and the hot food to soak through her jeans, burning her legs. The suit claims that the queso was so hot as to cause “redness, blistering, and bilateral partial and full thickness second and third degree burns to her right and left anterior thighs.” The burns in total covered 9.5% of her body and led to hyponatremia and significant infection, which required her to undergo surgical debridement and remedial skin graft procedures. The plaintiff claims that Pepe’s “carelessly, negligently, and recklessly,” improperly secured the container, and failed to warn her that the queso was hot enough to cause severe burns.
The claim of “unreasonably hot” that we observe in the Pepe’s case is a reminder of a famous personal injury and product liability lawsuit that many both in and outside of the legal profession are aware: the McDonald’s hot coffee case. The formal name of the case is Stella Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants, P.T.S, Inc. and McDonald’s International Inc., and it is a 1994 product liability lawsuit that has become a landmark tort reform case.
Liebeck suffered third-degree burns around her legs and pelvic region after she spilled hot coffee that she purchased from McDonald’s in her lap. In the parking lot, she held the coffee cup between her legs to add cream and sugar to the hot beverage. While doing so she spilled the entire cup on her lap. She was then hospitalized for these injuries and had to receive medical treatment for several years after. Liebeck’s attorneys argued that the coffee was a defective product as the temperature of the coffee at 180 – 190 degrees Fahrenheit was too hot and likely to cause serious injury since it was much hotter than the temperature at which coffee is normally served. The lawsuit was successful in establishing that coffee shouldn’t be served hotter than 140 degrees and that other establishments served their coffee at much lower temperatures than McDonald’s. Therefore, had McDonald’s served the coffee at lower temperatures, third degree burns would not have occurred.
Almost every lawyer has studied has studied this famous case as well in Tort Law class, the class in which law students study the ins and outs of personal injury law and how it has developed over time to the present. This case is well known for being a landmark Tort case and changing standards, particularly regarding the “reasonableness” standard for products. As the case showed, by comparing McDonald’s to other establishments that serve coffee, it was not reasonable to serve the coffee at such hot temperatures as most establishments did not do this and that the temperatures were known to cause severe burns. As product liability law tells us, when a company is aware of a defect in a product that is known to be able to cause injury to the consumer, it is their legal duty to remedy this defect, remove it from the marketplace, and/or make the consumer aware of the known danger. Because McDonald’s could be aware that this temperature could cause third degree burns but still served the coffee at such extreme temperatures, they were found to have breached their legal duty to consumers and liable for their negligent actions.
Our attorneys understand that while the food and drinks we order from restaurants should be warm for our consumption, they should not be so hot as to pose a danger to us and cause burn injuries. In these instances, there is a clear danger between food being a warm meal or beverage and it being so unreasonably hot that it is unsafe for consumption. If you have suffered injury from a dangerous or defective product, you may be able to seek help from a legal professional to hold the company liable that caused your injuries. Our lawyers would be happy to speak to you in a free consultation. Call us today, and we may be able to help you with your legal needs.