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Ever since the fast-food giant’s founding in 1940, McDonald’s has faced numerous lawsuits and class actions from injured consumers, accessibility activists, laborers from the farms where McDonald’s sources its ingredients, franchisees who faced discrimination, and many others.
The full extent of McDonald’s legal history in the U.S. and beyond could fill textbooks. However, some of the most notable lawsuits and class actions filed against McDonald’s have been in recent years. Many of these lawsuits have highlighted major injustices in society including:
Liebeck Versus McDonald’s
Perhaps one of the most famous personal injury lawsuits, Liebeck versus McDonald’s involves Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman who spilled 190°F McDonald’s coffee into her lap. According to the American Museum of Tort Law, Liebeck suffered third-degree burns on over 16 percent of her body including her inner thighs and genitals.
Liebeck required multiple skin grafts to treat the burns and nearly died during her two-year recovery from the injury. She spent six months afterward trying to settle with McDonald’s for $15,000 to $20,000 to cover her medical expenses. In return, McDonald’s offered her a mere $800.
Liebeck and her legal team eventually took the case to trial and, after seeing the graphic photos of Liebeck’s burns, jurors awarded Liebeck $200,000 in compensatory damages. The jurors also awarded $2.7 million in punitive damages due to McDonald’s “willful, wanton, and reckless” actions. Unfortunately, this amount was eventually reduced to $480,000
The reality of Liebeck’s injuries was obscured by media coverage of the case. Many news outlets painted the so-called “hot coffee case” as an example of frivolous lawsuits in an overly litigious society. This coverage reduced Liebeck’s horrific pain and suffering to little more than a punchline about a woman making millions after spilling luke-warm coffee on herself.
Ultimately, Liebeck received less than $500,000 for her losses. However, Liebeck claimed the point of the lawsuit was not the money, but to convince McDonald’s to change the temperature of their coffee to a safe and recommended coffee temperature. At the time, this was cited as about 135-150 degrees. According to The New York Times, McDonald’s handbook for franchisees currently calls for temperatures 10 degrees lower than this range.
Walker Versus McDonald’s
In 2016, Trevor Walker visited a McDonald’s in Utah to order food for himself and his family. While sipping on his Diet Coke, he began to lose sensation in his fingers, arms, and legs.
He texted his wife, panicking about the sensations in his arm. She rushed him to the hospital where a urine test discovered he had consumed buprenorphine—a drug used to help recovering heroin addicts. His drink was sent to the Utah State Crime Lab where tests confirmed the presence of buprenorphine and naloxone.
After recovering from this incident, Walker filed a lawsuit in 2018 against McDonald’s alleging that his beverage was purposefully spiked with a “heroin-like substance.” Along with McDonald’s, Walker has sued the local franchisee (Coca-Cola) and a local drink distributor (Swire Coca-Cola) seeking compensation for medical bills, loss of income, and the post-traumatic stress that he has suffered from since the incident.
Walker was reportedly offered a settlement but rejected it in favor of taking the case to trial. “We wanted McDonald’s to take responsibility for what happened,” said Walker in a comment to the Salt Lake Tribune. “There’s nobody interested in making sure this doesn’t happen again. There’s some guy out there who can just do it again.”
In 2019, McDonald’s reportedly argued that it should be dropped from the lawsuit because “it is removed from the day-to-day operations of a franchisee.” However, Walker’s attorney argues that because McDonald’s exerts such control over its franchisees and their employees, they should be liable for the incident. “The corporations have a duty to properly supervise, train and monitor their employees,” the lawsuit states.
This case is still ongoing, but it highlights the very serious concerns consumers have over receiving tainted food. The case also illustrates the difficulties of holding large corporations accountable for the actions of their franchisees and employees.
McDonald’s Violence Complaint
In 2019, 17 fast-food workers in Chicago filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s alleging that the company was not doing enough to protect its workers from violent customers.
According to CBS News, all of the plaintiffs represented by the lawsuit were either the victim of violence on the job or witnessed violence against their co-workers. One of the incidents listed in the suit includes a customer hopping over the counter and pulling a gun on the McDonald’s workers.
The suit also alleges that employees do not receive adequate security training and that there is a workplace culture of discouraging workers from reporting incidents to police as it could “harm business” for the franchise.
McDonald’s claimed in a statement that it “takes seriously its responsibility to provide and foster a safe working environment for our employees,” according to NPR. But the suit argues that, by extending night shift hours and designing stores in ways that leave workers vulnerable to attack, McDonald’s is failing to keep workers safe.
This is yet another ongoing lawsuit that highlights the difficulties of holding large corporations responsible for the actions of their franchisees and employees.
Sanchez Versus McDonald’s
In 2013, Maria Sanchez and other McDonald’s workers filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s locations in California claiming that, as early as 2009, McDonald’s failed to pay overtime wages to employees who worked more than eight hours in a 24-hour period.
The suit claims that, for overnight shifts that began on one day and ended the next day, McDonald’s locations in California had all hours attributed to the day the shift started. This was allegedly done to avoid paying out overtime to employees. The lawsuit also claimed that McDonald’s Restaurants of California Inc. did not provide required meal and rest breaks to its workers.
The suit started with just a few plaintiffs but eventually grew into a class-action lawsuit representing over 38,000 residents who work (or previously worked) at McDonald’s locations in California.
Finally, in 2020, McDonald’s agreed to pay $26 million to settle the years-long class-action lawsuit. The settlement includes compensation for back wages, unpaid overtime, meal and rest breaks, and more.
“While we continue to believe our employment practices comply with the California Labor Code, we have decided to resolve this lawsuit filed back in early 2013,” McDonald’s said in a statement about the class-action settlement.
This class action highlights the rampant prevalence of wage theft (especially among immigrants and low-wage workers in the restaurant industry) and how workers continue to lose billions in stolen wages each year due to minimum wage violations.
James Byrd, Jr. and Darrell Byrd Versus McDonald’s
One of the most recent major class-action lawsuits against the fast-food giant was filed by The Ferraro Law Firm on Monday, August 31, 2020. The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of 77 former black McDonald’s franchisees, alleges racial discrimination.
According to the complaints of the franchisees, black franchisees were pressured to open locations in undesirable and dangerous locations that had fewer sales but higher costs in security, insurance rates, and employee turnover. White franchisees, on the other hand, were allegedly offered profitable and safe locations.
According to the suit, black franchisees who refused to continue operations in these undesirable McDonald’s locations were retaliated against through increased inspections and unfair grading. Ultimately, the suit argues, black franchisees were offered false opportunities by McDonald’s. This made it all but impossible for these entrepreneurs to become successful business owners and, in some instances, drove franchise owners into financial ruin.
“They are victims of McDonald’s targeted discrimination against black franchisees, which McDonald’s covered up during years of parity deals and false promises,” according to the suit.
This class action is an ongoing one, but it has already shone a bright light on systemic racism in the restaurant industry. Despite the steps McDonald’s has taken to improve its image on diversity by hiring a new diversity chief and promising equity among franchisees, the fast-food giant still reportedly denies liability and calls the franchisees’ discrimination claim “illogical.”
Have You Been Denied Equal Business Opportunities? We Can Help
These franchisees were robbed of their fair shot at the American Dream. Sadly, they are not alone. Far too many hard-working entrepreneurs are denied equal business opportunities every single day due to discriminatory business practices and systemic racism.
Were you denied an equal business opportunity on the basis of discrimination? If so, our attorneys may be able to help you hold the responsible company accountable for its actions. In the process, you may be entitled to compensation for a range of losses.
You can fill out our free case review to discuss your case with our legal team. The Ferraro Law Firm is dedicated to helping the marginalized fight for justice against unscrupulous companies that deny the lawful rights of workers.
If you have questions about a failed business venture that you believe came by way of discrimination, you can give our attorneys at The Ferraro Law Firm a call at 888-554-2030.