Rachel Wehrenberg says Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. is to blame for the second- degree burns her 6-year-old daughter, Victoria, suffered when they stopped for breakfast at an Estero McDonald's on March 18, according to a civil lawsuit filed in Lee County Circuit Court this week.
"We all expect coffee to be hot and to be careful when you take a sip. But you don't expect if it's spilled on you to get second-degree burns," Debi F. Chalik, the Wehrenbergs' attorney, said Friday.
Victoria Wehrenberg suffered burns over 80 percent of her back, Chalik said, when customer William F. Ganshirt, 79, of Harwich, Mass., spilled coffee on her from his lidless cup at the condiment counter of the restaurant, at 20310 Grand Oaks Shoppes Blvd.
A plastic surgeon doesn't know if the child will need scar surgery when she's older, Chalik said.
The Wehrenbergs also name Ganshirt and franchise owner/operator Thomas Fewster Jr. as defendants in the suit, saying Ganshirt, Fewster and McDonald's were negligent and that Fewster and McDonald's sold coffee that was "unreasonably dangerous."
In an e-mailed statement on Friday, Fewster said he is not aware of any lawsuit. He did not return a message left by the Daily News on Friday for further comment. A spokeswoman for McDonald's Corp. would not comment on the lawsuit when contacted Friday, saying Fewster's one-sentence response would serve as the company's response.
A 79-year-old New Mexico woman garnered nationwide publicity and set off a public debate over tort reform when she filed suit against McDonald's, saying she suffered third-degree burns after spilling coffee in her lap in February 1992. Holding the Styrofoam cup between her knees in the drive-through, Stella Liebeck, of Albuquerque, was trying to add cream and sugar when it tipped. She was hospitalized for eight days.
A jury awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages, but reduced it to $160,000, finding Liebeck 20 percent at fault. Jurors awarded Liebeck $2.7 million in punitive damages, which a judge reduced to $480,000.
In the Estero incident, Ganshirt was walking to the condiment counter for a lid at about 7 a.m. when they collided, Chalik said.
A message was left for Ganshirt at his Harwich home, but he could not be reached for comment. A message also was left for Rachel Wehrenberg, but she could not be reached for comment.
Chalik said an investigator tested the coffee temperature at this restaurant a month ago.
"It was 170.1 degrees, I believe.
Industry standard is 140 degrees," she said. "The other problem was the coffee didn't have lids when purchased. That's pretty dangerous."
The family seeks an undetermined amount in damages and payment for past and future medical bills.
Chalik said the now-famous Liebeck lawsuit influenced her decision to file suit.
"From that lawsuit they learned through discovery that McDonald's had thousands of complaints of customers getting burned," she said. "They were aware of the risks and didn't care."