A lawsuit a few years ago made headlines worldwide when a McDonald’s drive-through customer spilled a cup of scalding hot coffee on herself. Claiming the coffee was too hot to be safely consumed in a car, the badly burned 80-year-old woman won $2.9 million in court. (The judge later reduced the award to $640,000.) McDonald’s claimed the product was served to the correct specifications and was of proper quality. Further, the cup read “Caution-Contents May Be Hot:” McDonald’s coffee, at 180°, is substantially hotter (by corporate rule) than typical restaurant coffee despite hundreds of coffee-scalding complaints in the past 10 years. Similar court eases, incidentally, resulted in smaller verdicts, but again in favor of the plaintiffs. For example, Motor City Bagel Shop was sued for a spilled cup of coffee by a drive-through patron, and Starbucks by a customer who spilled coffee on her own ankle.
Are McDonald’s, Motor City, and Starbucks at fault in situations such as these? How do quality and ethics enter into these cases?