Clovis woman, 74, sues McDonald's over burns from hot coffee

The Fresno BeeOctober 23, 2013 

In 1992, a cup of McDonald's hot coffee spilled on 79-year-old Stella Liebeck in Alburquerque, N.M.

Liebeck, who suffered third-degree burns and was hospitalized, sued McDonald's and won big -- a jury awarded her $2.9 million.

Twenty-one years later, a Fresno lawyer said McDonald's is still serving piping hot coffee.

Nicholas "Butch" Wagner has sued McDonald's in Fresno County Superior Court "in excess of $2 million" on behalf of 74-year-old Clovis homemaker Joan Fino.

Wagner said Fino suffered second-degree burns to her groin area after coffee spilled on her lap at the drive-up window of McDonald's in Clovis at Alluvial and Temperance avenues in August 2012.

"It still hurts," Fino said this week. "I have trouble sleeping because the burning sensation doesn't go away."

A lawyer for McDonald's could not be reached . But Wagner said the lawyer, Samuel Grader of Sacramento, "has reached out to us" in hopes of reaching a confidential settlement by Thursday.

If a settlement isn't reached, Wagner said he and Fino plan to present their case to a Fresno jury next year.

When Liebeck won her McDonald's suit she became an instant celebrity, but for the wrong reason: late-night talk-show hosts, comedians, sitcom writers and political pundits accused her of filing a frivolous lawsuit.

Some politicians sought reforms in the legal system, hoping to cap multimillion-dollar verdicts. The trial judge even reduced Liebeck's jury award to about $650,000 before both sides settled for a confidential amount.

In 2011, HBO produced a documentary called "Hot Coffee" that profiled Liebeck and her case and showed how corporate America was behind the move to cap jury awards.

Wagner said the legal reforms went nowhere once the public learned that Liebeck had a legitimate lawsuit. "People joked about the McDonald's case without looking at the facts," he said.

This week, The New York Times published a Retro Report piece on the Liebeck case, saying that during court proceedings, McDonald's said it served its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. "The company has refused to disclose today's standard temperature," the article said, but a handbook for McDonald's franchisees call for temperatures 10 degrees lower.

Like Liebeck, Fino is suing McDonald's for negligence, contending the corporation acted with malice because its employees knowingly served her coffee that was "unreasonably hot in excess of 175 degrees Fahrenheit," the lawsuit said.

She is seeking damages for medical expenses, physical pain, mental anguish, emotional distress and pain and suffering.

Wagner said McDonald's serves its coffee extra hot to save money. By keeping the coffee at "scalding hot temperatures," the coffee keeps its taste longer and McDonald's "doesn't have to re-brew coffee as often," he said.

In its defense, McDonald's puts a warning -- in both English and Spanish -- on its coffee cup that says: "Caution Handle with Care I'm Hot."

Wagner said Fino has a better case than Liebeck because coffee spilled on Fino while a McDonald's employee handed her the beverage at the drive-through window.

Liebeck was a passenger in her grandson's car when coffee spilled on her on Feb. 27, 1992.

After ordering coffee, her grandson parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the cup between her knees and pulled the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled coffee on her lap and suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, groin and buttocks. She was hospitalized for eight days and underwent skin grafts.

In 2004 Liebeck died at age 91.

The McDonald's at Alluvial and Temperance in Clovis opened in April 2012 -- a few months before Fino ordered coffee there.

Fino said she was alone in her sports utility vehicle when she ordered two cups of coffee -- one for her and one for her husband -- on Aug. 14, 2012. She recalled that when she was handed the first cup, coffee spilled out from under the lid and burned her fingers. She quickly put the cup in a cup holder.

When the second cup was handed to her, the coffee spilled onto her lap, Fino said.

"I was screaming and crying but the lady at the window didn't even offer to help me," she said.

The pain was so excruciating, she said, she unbuckled her seat belt, got out of her car, and raced to restroom. "I left the car running in the drive-through," she said.

She recalled crying in the bathroom, but "no one would talk to me or help me." She said a female employee finally approached, but she just wanted her name and phone number. By then, someone had moved her car to the parking lot, Fino said. She then drove home, still crying, she said.

Her husband Robert took her to what was then Clovis Community Hospital (now it is called Clovis Community Medical Center). A doctor told her to go to the burn center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno, she said.

Fino said she's still upset at McDonald's because its only attempt to reach out to her was when an insurance agent asked her if she had blisters.

More than a year later, she said, the coffee burns still bother her. "I use lotions and ice packs, but I can still feel it," she said.

She said she has not returned to the McDonald's at Alluvial and Temperance, but goes to other McDonald's restaurants because her grandkids like the food.

Fino said she still likes hot coffee. "They need to put the lids on right so people don't get hurt," she said.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, plopez@fresnobee.com or @beecourts on Twitter.

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