McDonald’s, one of the world’s most iconic fast-food chains, has faced its fair share of legal battles over the years. These lawsuits have ranged from personal injury cases to accusations of racial discrimination and false advertising. Despite its global success and popularity, McDonald’s has become somewhat of a magnet for lawsuits, with plaintiffs seeking compensation from the corporation for various reasons.
Some of the most famous lawsuits include the hot coffee case, in which a woman suffered third-degree burns to her body after spilling a cup of McDonald’s coffee on her lap. Other notable cases involve accusations of racial discrimination, such as the $10 billion lawsuit filed by media mogul Byron Allen alleging that the company did not advertise with Black-owned media. Additionally, McDonald’s has faced class-action lawsuits over alleged false advertising of their burgers.
As we delve into the ten biggest lawsuits against McDonald’s, we will explore the background, allegations, and outcomes of each case, providing insight into the legal challenges faced by this fast-food giant throughout its history.
1. The Hot Coffee Case
In 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman, suffered severe burns from a cup of hot coffee purchased at a McDonald’s drive-through. The incident led to a widely-publicized lawsuit against McDonald’s, filed in 1994, due to the company’s handling of the hot beverage’s temperature and inadequate warning to customers about the risk of burns.
At the time of the incident, Liebeck was in her grandson’s car, which did not have cup holders to accommodate the hot beverages they had ordered. While attempting to remove the lid of her coffee cup in the parked car, she accidentally spilled the too-hot coffee on her lap, resulting in third-degree burns and a need for skin grafts and medical treatment.
Liebeck initially sought compensation from McDonald’s to cover her medical expenses, which were estimated to be around $20,000. McDonald’s offered $800 in response, prompting her to file the lawsuit. The trial revealed that over 700 other complaints about burns from hot coffee had been made to McDonald’s prior to this case, revealing a history of problems with their coffee temperatures.
After hearing the evidence, the jury awarded Liebeck $160,000 in compensatory damages for medical expenses and $2.7 million in punitive damages, which was the equivalent of two days of McDonald’s coffee sales. However, the trial judge later reduced the punitive damages to three times the amount of the compensatory damages, totaling $640,000.
2. The Obesity Lawsuit
In recent years, there has been a notable case involving McDonald’s and obesity. The lawsuit, known as Pelman v. McDonald’s, was filed by a group of overweight children who sought compensation for obesity-related health issues. This lawsuit put the spotlight on the fast-food industry and their legal accountability for the growing obesity problem.
One of the main arguments in the case was that McDonald’s misled customers about the nutritional value of its products. The plaintiffs claimed that the fast-food giant provided false and misleading information, encouraging consumers to overconsume and ultimately leading to obesity. The case asserted that McDonald’s advertised their food as “good basic nutritious food,” suggesting that it has been, and will continue to be, the foundation of well-balanced diets for generations.
While the lawsuit faced several challenges, it opened the door for further discussions and debates about the fast-food industry’s responsibility in contributing to obesity-related health problems. As this case demonstrates, holding large corporations accountable for their marketing practices and product claims is an essential step towards addressing the growing obesity epidemic.
3. The Wage Theft Allegations
In various instances, McDonald’s has faced legal actions related to wage theft allegations. The company has been accused of not properly paying its workers for their labor, violating minimum wage and overtime regulations, and forcing employees to work off the clock.
One significant example of such a lawsuit was settled in 2019, when McDonald’s agreed to pay $26 million to California cooks and cashiers who accused the company of wage theft. This particular lawsuit, initially filed in 2013, resulted in a substantial settlement for the fast-food workers involved.
In another wave of wage theft lawsuits, McDonald’s workers in New York, Michigan, and California filed a series of class action suits accusing the fast-food giant of multiple instances of wage theft. These lawsuits alleged that franchise owners engaged in illegal practices, such as forcing workers to buy their own uniforms and making employees work without pay. Furthermore, it was claimed that there were unlawful deductions for costs related to uniforms and other work-related expenses.
These wage theft allegations highlight some of the legal battles faced by McDonald’s over the years. In each case, the workers’ claims aimed to bring attention to the alleged unfair and illegal treatment they faced while working for the fast-food giant.
4. The Discrimination and Harassment Claims
In recent years, McDonald’s has faced several high-profile lawsuits related to discrimination and harassment. One notable case was filed in August 2020, when 52 Black ex-franchisees filed a $1 billion racial-discrimination lawsuit against the company. The plaintiffs claimed that McDonald’s sent them on “financial suicide missions” by pushing them to open restaurants in economically disadvantaged areas.
Another alarming case took place in 2020, when two McDonald’s employees in Florida filed a $500 million sexual harassment lawsuit. Jamelia Fairley and Ashley Reddick accused the fast-food giant of fostering a “systemic sexual harassment” environment within its corporate structure.
Additionally, McDonald’s was hit with another racial discrimination lawsuit in September 2020. A group of former franchise owners accused the company of systematically discriminating against Black franchise operators by offering better financial support and growth opportunities to white-owned franchises.
These lawsuits highlight significant issues related to discrimination and harassment within McDonald’s corporate culture. The company must address these matters responsibly and transparently to prevent further legal actions and maintain the trust of its stakeholders.
5. The Monopoly Game Scandal
In the early 2000s, McDonald’s faced a massive scandal involving its popular Monopoly promotional game. Designed as a marketing strategy to increase customer engagement, the game involved collecting winning game pieces from food packaging to redeem various prizes. However, it was later discovered that a criminal network had been rigging the game since the 1990s, defrauding McDonald’s of more than $24 million in prize money.
At the center of the scandal was Jerome P. Jacobson, an employee of Simon Marketing, the company responsible for managing the Monopoly promotion. Jacobson stole winning game pieces and distributed them to friends and associates in exchange for a cut of the prize money. This continued for over a decade, with Jacobson admitting in court that he stole up to 60 winning game pieces, resulting in a vast network of fraudulent winners He was finally caught in an FBI operation known as “Final Answer.”
Following the scandal, McDonald’s and Simon Marketing both filed lawsuits against each other for breach of contract, leading to a series of legal battles. Meanwhile, McDonald’s had to pay out $25 million to random customers as part of a settlement, to make up for the prizes that were fraudulently claimed during the rigged game.
In the wake of the scandal, the public’s trust in McDonald’s promotional games wavered. The revelation that the Monopoly game was rigged for over a decade had damaging effects on the fast-food giant’s reputation. The story of the Monopoly scandal eventually became the subject of a popular HBO documentary series titled “McMillions,” further highlighting the extent of the fraud and its impact on McDonald’s.
6. The Alleged Labor Law Violations
In recent years, McDonald’s has faced lawsuits related to labor law violations. One notable case, backed by the Fight for $15 movement, involved a dispute over the fast-food giant’s responsibility as a joint employer with franchisees. The central goal of the case was to establish McDonald’s as a joint employer and hold them accountable for labor-related issues.
In December 2021, the federal labor board released a 2-1 ruling ordering an agency judge to approve a roughly $170,000 settlement between McDonald’s franchisees and their workers. The ruling effectively absolved McDonald’s from any direct responsibility as a joint employer.
Another labor law-related lawsuit against McDonald’s involved allegations of $500 million worth of sexual harassment at the company’s Florida locations. Two employees, Jamelia Fairley and Ashley Reddick, filed a class-action lawsuit accusing McDonald’s of fostering “systemic sexual harassment” in their workplaces.
McDonald’s has also faced a $10 billion discrimination lawsuit filed by media entrepreneur Byron Allen. The lawsuit alleges that McDonald’s engages in “racial steering,” giving less favorable advertising deals to Black-owned media companies.
These labor law violation allegations and lawsuits highlight the ongoing concerns over the corporate responsibilities and practices of McDonald’s as a major global employer. McDaona
7. The Foreign Object Contamination Cases
In recent years, McDonald’s has faced multiple lawsuits involving foreign objects found in their meals. One such incident took place in February 2012 at a Chelsea, Michigan McDonald’s. The woman involved sued McDonald’s after allegedly discovering an unidentified foreign object in her food, though the suit did not specify what the object was or if she kept it for evidence. This case highlights the potential risks that consumers face when dining at fast-food establishments, especially with regard to product safety and quality control measures.
Another notable example occurred when a pregnant woman claimed to have been served two McDoubles laced with marijuana at a McDonald’s location. This case underscored the importance of ensuring the integrity and safety of the food supply, as well as the need for stricter food handling guidelines in places like fast-food restaurants.
Foreign object contamination cases filed against McDonald’s do not only involve food items. In some instances, customers have found foreign objects in their beverages as well. These incidents have sparked public interest in the safety and hygiene standards practiced by fast-food chains, calling for more rigorous inspections and monitoring.
Overall, the foreign object contamination cases against McDonald’s serve as a reminder of the importance of food safety, not just for the company, but also for the entire restaurant industry. By learning from these incidents and implementing stricter safety measures, fast-food chains can better protect their customers and ensure a consistently high-quality dining experience.
8. The Trademark Disputes
McDonald’s has faced multiple trademark disputes in the past, some of which resulted in significant legal battles. One noteworthy example is McDonald’s legal conflict with Supermac’s, an Irish restaurant chain. In this case, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) decided in favor of Supermac’s, thus restricting McDonald’s trademark on its Big Mac burger in the EU. This ruling marked a significant blow for the fast-food giant’s trademark claims in Europe.
Following this, McDonald’s lost another trademark case against Supermac’s. This time, the dispute was over the use of the “Mc” prefix on some of the fast-food chain’s products within the EU. Once again, Supermac’s emerged victorious as they successfully challenged McDonald’s exclusive claim to the “Mc” trademark.
Another trademark dispute involved McDonald’s and Salvadoran entrepreneur Roberto Bukele. The lawsuit involved allegations of breach of contract and trademark violation. After multiple legal battles, McDonald’s was ordered to pay a $23.9 million judgment to Bukele in 2012. However, Bukele has since claimed that he never received the judgment and has filed a new demand in court for $21 million in interest on the award.
These trademark disputes illustrate the complexities involved in protecting intellectual property, especially for global companies such as McDonald’s. They serve as a reminder of the importance of robust legal strategies and due diligence in maintaining exclusive rights to company trademarks and branding elements.
9. The Franchisee Litigations
One of the significant legal battles McDonald’s has faced in recent years involves multiple litigations filed by Black franchisees. The crux of these lawsuits is that the fast-food giant allegedly set up Black franchise owners for failure compared to their white counterparts.
A lawsuit filed in 2020 by 52 Black former franchise owners sought $1 billion in damages, claiming McDonald’s steered them towards less profitable locations with higher operating costs. According to the plaintiffs, this resulted in lower sales, cash flow, and growth potential than stores owned and operated by white franchisees.
In June 2021, a federal judge dismissed one such lawsuit against the corporation, stating that the plaintiffs had not provided sufficient evidence of direct or intentional discrimination by the company. However, this outcome was only temporary, as the judge allowed the plaintiffs to amend and refile their complaint.
Besides the financial disadvantage allegations, McDonald’s was also accused of offering better financial support and market opportunities to white franchisees. A September 2020 lawsuit stated that the company denied Black franchise operators equal opportunities to succeed and develop their businesses.
Though McDonald’s has faced and won several legal skirmishes in these franchisee litigations, they continue to be an ongoing concern for the fast-food giant. Addressing racial discrimination allegations has become an essential aspect of McDonald’s reputation management and corporate responsibility.
10. The Wrongful Termination Case
In a high-profile case involving McDonald’s and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company faced allegations of wrongful termination and other labor law violations. This lawsuit tested the NLRB’s decision on the franchisee relationship and put McDonald’s in the spotlight for its treatment of employees at franchise-owned locations.
The central issue in this case revolved around whether McDonald’s, as a parent company, held joint employer responsibility with franchisees for labor law violations. This question of liability was critical, as it could significantly impact the company’s legal and financial exposure in worker disputes at franchise locations. The case was brought to the forefront due to numerous complaints filed by franchise workers for alleged unfair labor practices, including wrongful termination.
McDonald’s faced the potential consequences of being classified as a joint employer, which could involve higher costs and regulatory burdens for the company. This classification could ultimately change the dynamic of its relationship with franchisees, affecting future expansion plans and profitability. Consequently, the outcome of this case held significant implications not just for McDonald’s but also for the broader franchise industry.
Throughout the legal battle, McDonald’s maintained its position that it was not a joint employer and thus should not be held liable for the alleged labor violations. The case raised broader questions about the responsibility of parent companies in protecting workers’ rights and ensuring compliance with labor laws at franchised establishments, drawing attention to the need for clear and comprehensive guidelines for businesses operating under this model.