McDonald’s (MCD) Could Be Involved With Another Coffee-Related Lawsuit: Buy or Sell?

McDonald's Corporation (MCD) finds itself in hot water again as a new civil case was filed on September 14 at the San Francisco Superior Court. An elderly woman named Mable Childress alleged that she suffered severe burns on her stomach, groin, and leg after she spilled hot coffee on herself while drinking due to an improperly attached lid.

The plaintiff also alleged in the lawsuit that the restaurant employees refused to help her. According to Childress’ lawyer, they “didn’t give her the time of day.” The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiff was suffering from physical pains, emotional distress, and other damages. Also, it alleged that the restaurant’s negligence was a “substantial factor” for Childress’ injuries.

Peter Ou, the owner of the MCD drive-thru in San Francisco denied that the store manager and employees refused to help her. He said, “We take every customer complaint seriously and when Childress reported her experience to us later that day, our employees and management team spoke to her within a few minutes and offered assistance.”

“My restaurants have strict food safety protocols in place, including training crew to ensure lids on hot beverages are secure,” he added. He further stated that the company was reviewing this new legal claim in detail.

This latest lawsuit over spilled coffee might remind people of the much-talked-about hot coffee episode nearly thirty years ago where plaintiff Stella Liebeck suffered third-degree burns in her pelvic region when she accidentally spilled coffee on her lap while purchasing at an MCD restaurant. Liebeck had to undergo skin grafting and had to follow it up with two years of medical treatment.

Liebeck wanted $20,000 from MCD to settle the case, but the company refused to pay that amount. Instead, the company offered her $800, which was insufficient to cover her medical expenses. A suit was filed at the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, accusing the company of gross negligence.

The jurors found that MCD’s coffee was 30 to 40 degrees hotter than what was served by other restaurants. The jurors also found that many people had gotten burnt before due to MCD’s hot coffee, but the company did not change its policy of keeping coffee between 180 - 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to a jury’s verdict in 1994, the victim was granted $200,000 in compensatory damages for her pain, suffering, and medical costs, but it was later reduced to $160,000 by the trial judge as they found her 20 percent responsible. She was also paid $2.7 million in punitive damages, which was reduced to $480,000. Later, the two warring parties settled for a confidential amount.

Earlier this year, MCD faced a lawsuit after a toddler received second-degree burns from a scalding hot chicken nugget dispensed at a Tamarac, Florida drive-thru restaurant. A Broward County jury found that MCD and franchise owner Upchurch Foods failed to warn or provide reasonable instructions over the harm that the hot McNuggets could possibly do.

The jury awarded the Florida family $800,000 for pain and suffering, disfigurement, mental anguish, inconvenience, and loss of capacity to enjoy life. Out of the $800,000, the jury determined that $400,000 is for the injuries sustained in the past and the rest for the damages that will be sustained in the future.

Going by the company’s history of dealing with similar lawsuits, I don’t see the recent ‘hot coffee’ lawsuit to have a material impact on MCD’s financials. Instead, here’s what could influence MCD’s performance in the upcoming months:

Robust Financials

MCD’s revenues from franchised restaurants increased 11.5% year-over-year to $3.93 billion for the second quarter ended June 30, 2023. Its total revenues increased 13.6% year-over-year to $6.50 billion. The company’s non-GAAP net income increased 22.7% year-over-year to $2.32 billion, and its non-GAAP EPS rose 24.3% year-over-year to $3.17.

Favorable Analyst Estimates

Analysts expect MCD’s EPS for fiscal 2023 and 2024 to increase 14.7% and 7.5% year-over-year to $11.59 and $12.45, respectively. Its fiscal 2023 and 2024 revenues are expected to increase 9.7% and 6.8% year-over-year to $25.42 billion and $27.14 billion, respectively.

High Profitability

In terms of the trailing-12-month gross profit margin, MCD’s 57.45% is 62.1% higher than the 35.45% industry average. Likewise, its 53.79% trailing-12-month EBITDA margin is 388.6% higher than the industry average of 11.01%. Furthermore, the stock’s 8.64% trailing-12-month Capex/Sales is 168.6% higher than the industry average of 3.22%.

Stretched Valuation

In terms of forward EV/EBITDA, MCD’s 17.80x is 91.6% higher than the 9.29x industry average. Likewise, its 9.58x forward EV/Sales is 749% higher than the 1.13x industry average. Its 23.28x forward non-GAAP P/E is 64.6% higher than the 14.15x industry average.

Solid Historical Growth

MCD’s EBIT grew at a CAGR of 15% over the past three years. Its EBITDA grew at a CAGR of 13.2% over the past three years. In addition, its EPS grew at a CAGR of 19.7% in the same time frame.

Bottom Line

MCD is no stranger to lawsuits as it had to pay $800,000 earlier this year due to the McNugget burn lawsuit. Moreover, this is not the first time MCD has faced a lawsuit over hot coffee. In the earlier cases, the victims had received third or second-degree burns, which are considered severe.

However, according to the lawyer of the current hot coffee spill case, the plaintiff wants her medical expenses to be paid for and is not looking for a payday. MCD is highly likely to get fined and will likely be asked by a jury to compensate the victim. This is unlikely to have any effect on MCD’s business prospects.

The company has bold expansion plans, likely to fuel its growth in the upcoming years. Therefore, despite its stretched valuation, it could be wise to buy the stock now, given its high profitability, robust financials, and solid historical growth.