The Counsellor's Corner


Here we go again.  Maybe McDonald’s should take coffee off its menu.  It sure has cost them a lot of money over the past few years.  I’m sure you all remember the case out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in which a woman spilled coffee on her lap and McDonald’s was sued because the coffee was too hot.  In that case, a jury awarded the plaintiff 2.9 million dollars, which was subsequently reduced to $640,000.00 by the Judge presiding over the case, and was later settled out of court during the appellate process for an undisclosed amount. 


Now, we in California are lucky enough to have one of these ludicrous lawsuits of our very own.  This one took place in Vallejo in which a woman is suing McDonald’s, as a handicapped employee dropped a large cup of hot coffee in the lap of one Karen Muth as she made her purchase at a drive-through window.  Now, this is different from the first case.  With an employee, handicapped or not, dropping coffee on your lap, I agree you are entitled to something.  In this case, the woman says she suffered second degree burns, and I do believe that some recompense is appropriate, as opposed to the Albuquerque case in which the issue pertained to the temperature of the coffee.  The problem I have with her lawsuit is that her lawyer has indicated that Ms. Muth should be compensated in an amount somewhere between four and five hundred thousand dollars.  How much are her medical bills?  Approximately ten thousand dollars.  That leaves somewhere between $390,000.00 and $490,000.00 for “pain and suffering, and humiliation,” according to her lawyer.  Humiliation?  Ms. Muth ought to feel humiliated for requesting that kind of money, not for having coffee spilled on her lap.  What can possibly be inherently humiliating about suffering an accident such as this?  Accidents happen; that’s why they’re called accidents.  Apparently, the handicapped employee could not properly grip the cardboard tray, and Ms. Muth ended up with a lap full of coffee.  How about ten thousand dollars for the medical bills and thirty to forty thousand for the pain and suffering for a nice round total of fifty thousand dollars?  Four hundred to five hundred thousand dollars?  I don’t think so.  But of course, McDonald’s has a whole lot of money, so Ms. Muth will be motivated to ask for a whole lot of money and hope that McDonald’s settles this case rather than go to trial and risk another staggering defeat like the one suffered in New Mexico.  What a wonderful way to use our judicial system.


Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Unger, Danis & Grover, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.  Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues.