Jury awards $800,000 to girl burned by chicken McNugget

A Florida jury awarded $800,000 in damages to a 7-year-old girl on Wednesday for the suffering and emotional distress caused when a Chicken McNugget fell on her thigh and caused a second-degree burn.

The burn occurred in 2019 when she visited a McDonald’s at the age of 4, and the case has been compared to a famous and successful lawsuit against the fast food chain by a woman who was scalded by hot coffee more than 30 years ago.

A Broward County jury awarded the girl, Olivia Caraballo, damages for pain, suffering and other forms of mental suffering — $400,000 for the pain she endured and an additional $400,000 for any future suffering resulting from the injury, according to court documents. Lawyers for the family had asked for $1[ads1]5 million.

The suit was filed in state court by Olivia’s parents, Philana Holmes and Humberto Caraballo Estevez, against McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods, the franchise operator in Tamarac, Florida. In May, a separate jury found the two companies liable for failing to provide reasonable instructions or warnings — on the packaging that, for example, a meal such as McNuggets could lead to chunks of white chicken meat.

As of Thursday, it was not clear whether lawyers for McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods would appeal the decision. McDonald’s lawyers declined to comment. Attorneys for Upchurch Foods did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. Under Florida law, they have 15 days to seek a new trial or 30 days to appeal.

Jordan Redavid, the lead lawyer for the family, said the jury’s decision was “full justice” for Olivia.

“For years, the defendants said we didn’t have a case and they had no responsibility,” Mr. Redavid said. The damages awarded were much more than the $156,000 that lawyers for McDonald’s had suggested to the jury in their closing remarks, he added.

In August 2019, Ms. Holmes a six-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal for Olivia at a McDonald’s drive-through in Tamarac, a town northwest of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. After she gave the nuggets to her daughter in the backseat, some fell onto Olivia’s lap, leaving her thigh “disfigured and scarred,” according to the first lawsuit.

On Thursday, Holmes said in a telephone interview that she was “pleased with the decision” and was glad the jury considered her daughter’s pain.

“I just wanted Olivia’s voice to be heard,” Holmes said.

The court will oversee the disbursement of the funds awarded to the child, Redavid said, possibly through a court-appointed guardian who will propose how the money should be distributed. The funds will most likely be placed in an investment account until Olivia is an adult, he added.

The case led to comparisons with a well-known lawsuit, also involving McDonald’s, by a woman who was scalded by the fast food’s coffee. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, then 79, suffered severe burns after spilling her morning brew on her lap at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque.

Miss Liebeck’s lawsuit initially led to a whopping award of $2.9 million in damages. That turned the McDonald’s case into a byword for excessive litigation, said Prof. Ryan Calo, who teaches tort law at the University of Washington School of Law.

Professor Calo said the hot coffee lawsuit was comparable to a typical tort case and had more merit than public debate had allowed, as court cases had revealed the company typically served its coffee between 180 and 190 degrees. The plaintiff, who was held partially liable by the jury, still managed with some success to change the practices of a sprawling corporate giant, he said. A judge later reduced Ms. Liebeck’s award to about $640,000, finding that a more proportionate figure, he added.

Mr. Redavid acknowledged that the two McDonald’s cases seemed similar at first glance: a burned customer, a scalding object, a large payout from McDonald’s. But the circumstances were different, he said. Critics of Mrs Liebeck said she should have known a coffee was hot. But it was hard to fault Olivia, a 4-year-old girl, for not anticipating how hot a Chicken McNugget could be.

“This is not the infamous hot coffee case; this is Olivia’s case,” Mr. Redavid and his lawyers wrote in a statement issued after the jury’s verdict.

Since the 1992 case, McDonald’s and many other coffee shops have resorted to placing larger labels on their products with more direct warnings.

As for Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s is not currently issuing warnings.

Mrs. Holmes hopes they do. “Hopefully McDonald’s will change their Happy Meal boxes now,” she said, “to add a label or a warning that the food inside comes straight out of the fryer.”

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