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Lawsuits continue against McDonald's for spilt hot coffee

Drive-thru customer sues fast-food giant for employee spilling hot coffee on her at Port Coquitlam restaurant
Plaintiff Sylvia Nedila claims that she was burned by coffee at this McDonald's restaurant at 2330 Ottawa Street in Port Coquitlam | Chung Chow

Plaintiff Stella Liebeck created a media sensation in the early 1990s, when she sued McDonald's for gross negligence because its coffee was served too hot.

She won a multi-million dollar settlement in 1994: US$2.7 million in punitive damages and $160,000 in net compensatory damages to cover medical expenses.

The trial judge reduced her punitive-damage award to US$640,000, and the litigants settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.

Liebeck's case prompted some in legal circles to debate the need for tort reform. It also spawned the 2011 documentary Hot Coffee.

Her case may have also inspired two 1995 episodes of Seinfeld: one where the character Kramer tries to smuggle coffee into a movie theatre by hiding a cup under his shirt, thereby scalding himself; another when he sues the fictitious coffee chain Java World for having coffee that was too hot. 

Lawsuits similar to Liebeck's now happen with some regularity.

The most recent instance is that of Vancouver retiree Sylvia Nedila, who is suing McDonald's Restaurants of Canada Ltd. for an incident that happened on Oct. 26, 2021.

Nedila alleges that she ordered her coffee while in the drive-thru lane of the McDonald's restaurant at 2330 Ottawa Street in Port Coquitlam. 

"An employee of the defendant passed a large hot beverage to the plaintiff," Nedila said in the notice of civil claim that she filed Oct. 24 – almost two years exactly from the date of the alleged incident. "When the plaintiff took hold of the beverage, the lid came off and the hot beverage spilt onto the plaintiff, causing injury to the plaintiff."

Nedila's lawsuit alleges that the fast-food chain was negligent for:
• failing to adequately train their employees in the safe and proper handling of hot liquids and beverages;
• failing to ensure the lid of the cup was secure, creating a danger to the plaintiff;
• failing to ensure the premises were safe for people using them;
• failing to correct the dangerous conditions when they knew or ought to have known of them; and
• failing to provide sufficient, or any, warning of the said danger or take other steps to warn the plaintiff, and the public generally, of the prevailing dangerous conditions.

She does not allege that the coffee itself was too hot.

Nedila alleges that she suffered burns to her chest, abdomen, right hand and fingers. The result, she alleges is scarring and anxiety and depression. 

"The injuries sustained by the plaintiff have caused and will continue to cause pain, suffering and loss of enjoyment of life," Nedila's lawsuit alleges. 

She claims that as a result of her injuries, she has incurred and will continue to incur special damages for medicine, medical treatment and other expenses, particulars of which have not been fully determined. 

Nedila is seeking unspecified damages for:
• non-pecuniary loss;
• special damages for past and future expenses; and 
• cost of past and future health care services under the Health Care Costs Recovery Act.

She separately is asking for interest and costs for the court action. 

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