Well, the McDonald's suit is a perfect example of a suit I think needed to be brought. The problem with limiting yourself to the media account is that you rarely get all the facts. McDonalds was on notice that they kept their coffee at a temperature several degrees higher than the industry norm considered safe. They knew there had been at least three documented incidents of serious burn injuries attributable to the temperature. They determined it would be too expensive to retrofit all their coffee machines so decided it was worth it to continue to risk physical injury to their customers in order to protect thier profits.
The elderly woman who sued suffered serious burns which required a lengthy hospital stay and numerous skin grafts. Early on she offered to settle with McDonalds for the cost of her medical bills. McDonalds refused. In determining an appropriate award, the jury took into consideration the woman's portion of negligence and adjusted their damage verdict accordingly. The prevailing legal principal is who is in the best position to prevent the injury. Certainly the plaintiff bore some responsibility, but no one expects to suffer burns requiring skin grafts from a cup of coffee. McDonalds was on notice this was a possibility, took no steps to prevent such injuries and provided no warnings. The jury then imposed punitive damages against McDonalds for their intentional conduct. It was the punitive damages which made up the bulk of the verdict. The common argument is that punitive damages must be significant enough to discourage future similar behavior. All in all, I think it was a very just verdict. McDonalds promptly retrofited their coffee machines. They failed to do so until it hurt their pocketbook.