Twenty families of children scarred by fast food firm's scalding drinks sue McDonald's

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On a typically busy afternoon at McDonald's, 18-month-old Thomas Casson and his older brother, Alfred, were treated to a visit to the restaurant by their grandmother. After a short wait at the counter she emerged from the queue carrying a tray, on top of which was balanced a cup of tea.

Within seconds what should have been a happy family outing turned into an emotional and legal nightmare. As she was accidentally jostled by other customers the tea fell from the tray and into the pram, scalding Thomas and leaving him scarred. His brother Alfred, now six, who stood helplessly listening to his brother's screams, still has "night terrors", which a children's psychiatrist has diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the accident.

More than two years later the Cassons and parents of about 20 other children who have suffered severe burns after being scalded by tea or coffee at McDonald's restaurants have begun legal action against the company in a claim estimated to be worth £500,000.

Some of the children's injuries are so serious they have required skin graft operations.

In one accident during a McDonald's children's party in London an 18-month-old girl picked up a cup of black coffee, mistaking it for Coca-Cola. Her family solicitor, Adrienne de Vos, who represents the majority of the McDonald's cases, said the heat of the cup caused her to drop it, spilling the contents down her chest. Her burns were so serious that she developed a potentially fatal toxic shock reaction, which Ms De Vos said she was lucky to survive.

In another case a visit to a McDonald's in Nottingham in 1997 ended in tragedy when two families shared a stool bar. One of the trays was pushed against another, edging it off the table. A cup of coffee on the displaced tray fell into the pram where an eight-month-old baby was sleeping. The baby suffered such severe burns to its shoulders that it required a skin graft.

Lawyers acting for the 20 children and a handful of adults have already won legal aid for the multi-party action and will issue proceedings next month.

The cases follows a similar one in America in which Stella Liebeck, 79, won $480,000 (£300,000) for third degree burns suffered after she spilt a cup of coffee over her lap in a drive-through restaurant in New Mexico in 1994. During that trial evidence was produced to show that McDonald's knew of 700 other burns cases. McDonald's tea and coffee cups carry a warning that the contents are hot. Warnings about the coffee temperature were a central issue in the US hearing.

Despite this case McDonald's still serves its hot drinks at between 87 and 90 degrees centigrade. The children's parents allege that such a policy is dangerous. But yesterday McDonald's said the temperature of its coffee was important to the brewing process. "We serve a lot of coffee which is popular with the vast majority of our customers who want it at the right temperature," he said.

Medical evidence to support the children's case will show that coffee or tea served at that range of temperature will cause "full thickness burns".

Part of the legal action also includes claims for post traumatic stress disorder. "Many of these children will be physically and potentially, mentally scarred for life. Some still have to wear body stockings, which they have been told they will have to wear for several years," said Adrienne De Vos,

Certainly Alfred and Thomas Casson will never forget their visit to the Swiss Cottage branch of McDonald's in north London. When their father, who worked near by, arrived at the scene, Thomas was still screaming.

Mr Casson, who works as a head caretaker for the London borough of Camden, said: "The skin had come right off and they were trying to push it back on. They were splashing water over him instead of running cold water over the burns." Thomas was taken to the Royal Free Hospital in North London were he was kept in for a week while doctors considered a skin graft. Instead they opted for a surgical stocking. His parents, who live in north London, were warned that the injuries were so serious he could have died if he had experienced an adverse reaction, known as toxic shock.

Thomas, now four, is recovering, although he will be scarred. Alfred has night terrors. "He still wakes up in the night screaming about the accident," says his father.

"McDonald's spends millions of pounds on advertising to entice children into its restaurants - why can't it use some of that money to make it safer for children by reducing the temperature of its coffee?" said Mr Casson. "If you want a burger without cheese, or a Coke without ice, you can have it, but if you want a cooler cup of coffee it's not possible."

Mr Casson, 35, also blames the poor queuing system. "It's chaos and there is no real system. I suppose if they had a proper queuing system it could just slow them down."

The Cassons say they are not concerned about financial compensation. "I don't care about the money because how can that compensate us for our children's pain. But if this case means that just one parent is spared the agony we have gone through for the last two and half years it will have been worth it."

Under the new court rules McDonald's has been served with notification of intent to sue and in the next few weeks a claim will be issued in the High Court in London.