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Can I sue McDonald’s for serving me a drink that scalds and injures me?

Many people remember the American lady who, in 1992, was scalded by a McDonald’s coffee and awarded nearly $3m in punitive damages by a jury (it was subsequently reduced by a confidential out-of-court settlement).

However, last week I was asked precisely this question by a prospective new client.

The bad news to this client was that, in 2002, the High Court had been asked to make a decision over whether McDonald’s customers could bring an action and had decided that thirty-six victims of scalding could not sue McDonald’s over accidents caused by hot drinks.

The judge said that people who buy coffee or tea know that it is hot and can cause a nasty injury if it spilled on someone. He said there was no duty on McDonald’s to warn customers about the risk.

The claimants had alleged that McDonald’s was serving drinks at too high a temperature, should have sold drinks that were cooler, used cups that were inadequate and did not warn customers of the risks.

The judge said that if McDonald’s could not serve drinks at the temperatures they did, then they would have to serve them at a temperature that would not cause scalding and this would not be acceptable to the public.

He said that McDonald’s were entitled to assume that the consumer would know that the drink was hot and there are many ways of speeding up cooling such as stirring and blowing.

The risk that drinks would be dropped or violently knocked over and cause scalding injuries could not be avoided if the facility the public wanted was going to be made available.

So in short, I advised my prospective client that, whilst I was sympathetic to his situation, the above case was not supportive in allowing him to seek redress.