McDonald's sued over hot hot chocolate

Starbucks, McDonald's and Caribou cups of hot chocolateHow hot should hot chocolate be served? In an echo of the infamous coffee-in-the-lap lawsuit filed in 1994 against McDonald's, the chain is being sued by a Chicago-area woman who claims her daughter was badly burned by the company's hot chocolate.

Vicki LaRocco is suing McDonald's for more than $50,000, claiming the hot drink from the drive-up window spilled on her 10-year-old daughter's leg, caused her suffering and scarring, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. At the time of the famous Liebeck vs. McDonald's case, the company was serving coffee at 180-190 degrees. When a cup of coffee spilled in Stella Liebeck's lap, she suffered third degree burns on 6% of her body. After suing the company, she and McDonald's settled for less than $600,000, the exact amount was never disclosed.

I wondered just how hot the hot chocolate would be served today at McDonald's and competitors, so I visited three. The McDonald's I visited, in Columbus, Ohio, served up a cup at 148 degrees. A nearby Starbucks was only 142 degrees, although the manager told me that they strive to deliver all of their hot drinks at 160 degrees. One of its competitors, Caribou Coffee, sold me a cup at 154 degrees.

I next wondered if hot chocolate in this range, 140-160 degrees, could indeed inflict burns on someone if it were spilled into his/her lap, so I spoke by phone with Scott Cohen, Director of Prevention Education at the Burn Foundation in Philadelphia. He told me that they usually caution people to limit the hot water in their homes to 120 degrees and even then mix it with cold water at the tap before exposing it to the skin. The temperatures of these hot chocolates could be sufficient to cause burns, he said, although the results can vary widely depending on how much liquid was spilled, how long the liquid stayed in contact with the skin and what part of the body was involved.

Consumers are used to giving hot drinks time to cool to a comfortable drinking temperature, and would probably gripe if they were served at drinking temperature, since they would soon be cooler than we like. However, dealing with drive-through windows presents a dilemma for companies like McDonald's, where there is always the danger that the exchange will be fumbled. It will be interesting to see how this suit plays out, and if the company can more successfully defend its present-day practices.

The corporate office of McDonald's replied to our request for comment with this quote from the franchise owner:
""As the owner of this restaurant, I take these matters seriously. I investigate all claims to gather the facts.

At this time, these are just allegations. I would strongly caution you from jumping to conclusions without the facts.

Beyond that, it would be inappropriate for me to further comment or speculate on these claims."

Juan Mendez,

McDonald's Franchisee
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