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Boiling Mad

Boiling Mad

Remember that infamous lawsuit a year ago against McDonald's Corp., in which an 81-year-old New Mexico woman was awarded $2.9 million--later reduced to $640,000--after she scalded herself by spilling hot coffee in her lap? Well, more litigation is brewing.

Fast-food chains are being beset by suits over hot-drink and food spills. About a dozen such actions are pending, and plaintiffs' lawyers claim scores more are about to be filed. "I get three to four calls a week," from other lawyers and potential plaintiffs, says S. Reed Morgan, the Houston lawyer who filed the original case. He is pursuing four additional suits.

USE CAUTION. The rash of litigation has companies from McDonald's to Starbucks Corp. scrambling to limit their potential liability. In addition to printing cautions on its coffee cups, McDonald's now posts warning signs at its drive-through windows and coffee refill stations. Wendy's, Hardee's, and Burger King added hot-drink warnings to their cups (and chili containers, in Wendy's case) in the past year. Starbucks has warnings on its cups and now also trains employees to tell customers to be careful.

But restaurateurs still may have a hard time prevailing in court. They argue that coffee must be served at a scalding 180F to 190F for taste reasons--and so it won't cool down too fast. McDonald's used such arguments in the New Mexico case and lost anyway. Warning labels don't help much, either: McDonald's first placed them on its coffee cups in 1991, two years before the suit was filed. Jurors, says Edward J. Felson, a lawyer representing a Cincinnati family in a case against Burger King Corp., are won over by often grotesque burn photos.

Congress is considering reform measures that would discourage such suits. Until then, fast-food chains remain in hot water.