McDonald’s Lawsuit Revisited: 15 Year Old Sues Virgin Australia After Being Burned By Coffee Inflight

You may be familiar with — and even outraged by — the famous lawsuit against McDonald’s by Stella Liebeck who was burned by hot coffee.

The jury’s $2.7 million award has long been a poster child for tort reform (the judge actually reduced her award to $480,000). What’s often missed is that:

  • The award was medical expenses and two days’ profit from coffee
  • Immediately after the award fast food restaurants started serving coffee at around 158 °F — a temperature where it will take 60 seconds to cause third degree burns (enough time to react to a spill and avoid burns).

McDonald’s in Bangkok

The plaintiff in the case wasn’t driving. She was the passenger, the car was stopped, and she removed the coffee lid to add cream and sugar. The coffee spill caused extensive burns to her legs and her groin. She needed skin grafts.

What’s more, McDonald’s had received hundreds of documented complaints about the dangerous temperature at which they were serving coffee, and they conceded it was at a temperature where it couldn’t be consumed immediately. So McDonald’s was deemed negligent.

We now have a new McDoanld’s case from the skies. A 15 year old flying Los Angeles – Sydney is suing Virgin Australia after getting burned by hot coffee.

In the May 2015 incident,

The 15-year-old said he placed the cup on a tray table that was uneven, causing the cup to slide off and splash on his lap, burning his groin, stomach and legs.

Virgin Australia Boarding in Los Angeles

His father “described his son’s injuries as horrific and compared it to blisters to the size of 50 cent coins that looked like jellyfish.”

They allege that the flight crew refused them cold water to treat the injury after having gone through 12 bottles.

‘They said that we have got to make sure that we have enough water for the flight, especially in first class. Why even mention that?’ he said.

The boy reportedly took 3 months to heal “and during that time he was bullied at school who said he ‘walked like a gorilla’.”

They’re suing for damages — and to get airlines to start serving hot beverages with lids.

    Ronald McDoanld Takes to the Skies!

I won’t pre-judge the case. I’ll just observe that complaints about tort law are usually that judgments are too punitive against companies, not that they aren’t punitive enough. Lawsuits are often more effective than legislators and regulators, and companies have a harder time lobbying the former than capturing the latter.

I hope whatever the outcome that hot drinks won’t become less available onboard. I get frustrated with Cathay Pacific as it is when they won’t serve coffee with the seatbelt sign on. I’d be happy to sign a waiver of liability in exchange for my coffee..!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Cathay….really? I always thought they couldn’t serve hot beverages for THEIR (the FA) protection. I’ll gladly wait for my drink or soup for their safety 😉

  2. Congrats on the NYTimes mention today Sunday. Your name was mentioned so many times they should have let you write the article. Good article though.

  3. @evan- the passenger and airline are australian so im really not sure where you’re getting at there lol

  4. The article about how the election of Mr. Trump may change the tourism and travel landscape. Your comments were measured and to the point with no unnecessary hype. I still think you should have written the entire article.

  5. you know, for someone who continually says he’s not offering a legal opinion, you sure do like to post them

  6. @brad I don’t think I’ve discussed the merits of the specific legal case here…? I do have an opinion about the broader social issues highlighted by cases, however.

  7. Have you seen the documentary “Hot Coffee” ? It’s regarding the McDonalds case.
    If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend it. It most likely alter your opinion a little.

  8. “They said that we have got to make sure that we have enough water for the flight, especially in first class. Why even mention that?’ he said. ”
    Really? Credibility gap already – Virigin Austrlaia don’t operate/haven’t operated First Class!!!!

  9. Lets stay on point people! ADA problems popping up again. Now back to the article.

    Really? The tray table was uneven? You bet it was because the plane was flying over choppy water! Anyone who has flown knows that things spill PERIOD!!! You ask for hot coffee on a plane it is going to spill.

    When I order my soda or drink and it spills on my tray and lap can I sue for damages for my STUPIDTY ?

    Commonsense people! Granted the pax was 15 but he was not flying alone and it was most likely NOT his first flight. Any 15 yr old who orders coffee must like it and must also know it is HOT.

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