A Florida jury awarded $800,000 in damages to a 7-year-old girl Wednesday for the suffering and mental anguish caused when McNugget’s chicken fell on her thigh, causing second-degree burns.
The burn occurred in 2019 when she was visiting a McDonald’s restaurant at the age of four, and the case has drawn comparisons to a famous and successful lawsuit against the fast-food chain by a woman who was burned with hot coffee more than 30 years ago.
The Broward County jury awarded the girl, Olivia Caraballo, damages for pain, suffering and other forms of mental anguish — $400,000 for the pain she endured and an additional $400,000 for any future suffering caused by the injury, according to court documents. Family lawyers demanded $15 million.
The lawsuit was filed in state court by Olivia’s parents, Villana Holmes and Humberto Caraballo Estevez, against McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods, the franchise operator in Tamarac, Florida. In May, a separate jury decided that the two companies were responsible for failing to provide reasonable instructions or warnings — on the packaging, for example — about the risk of injury that could result from white chicken nuggets.
As of Thursday, it was not clear if lawyers for McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods would appeal the decision. McDonald’s lawyers declined to comment. Upchurch Foods attorneys did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. Under Florida law, they have 15 days to request a new trial or 30 days to appeal.
Jordan Rediff, senior family counselor, said the jury’s decision amounted to “complete justice” for Olivia.
“For years, the defendants have said we had no case and that they had no responsibility,” said Mr Rediff. He added that the damages awarded were far more than the $156,000 that McDonald’s attorneys suggested to the jury in their closing remarks.
In August 2019, Ms. Holmes ordered a six-piece Happy Chicken McNuggets meal for Olivia at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Tamarac, a city northwest of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. After she handed the coins to her daughter in the back seat, one coin fell into Olivia’s lap, leaving her thigh “mutilated and disfigured,” according to the preliminary lawsuit.
On Thursday, Ms Holmes said in a phone interview that she was “satisfied with the decision” and was glad the jury had considered her daughter’s pain.
“I just wanted Olivia’s voice to be heard,” said Mrs. Holmes.
Mr Redwid said the court would supervise the disbursement of money awarded to the child, possibly through a court-appointed guardian who would suggest how the money should be distributed. He added that the money will likely be put into an investment account until Olivia is an adult.
The case has drawn comparisons to a high-profile lawsuit, also involving McDonald’s, by a woman who was burned by a fast-food restaurant’s coffee. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, age 79, suffered severe burns after morning brew was spilled on her lap in a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque.
Ms. Liebeck’s suit initially resulted in a whopping $2.9 million in damages. That turned the McDonald’s case into a synonym for excessive litigation, said Professor Ryan Callow, who teaches tort law at the University of Washington School of Law.
Professor Callow said the hot coffee suit was comparable to a typical case in tort law and had more merit than public debate had allowed. He said the plaintiff, held partially responsible by the jury, still managed to change the practices of a sprawling behemoth, with some success. He added that a judge later reduced Ms. Liebeck’s award to approximately $640,000, finding it more commensurate.
Mr. Redavid acknowledged that the two McDonald’s cases looked similar at first glance: a burnt customer, a burnt item, large compensation from McDonald’s. But the circumstances were different, he said. Many of Ms. Liebeck’s critics said she should have known the coffee was hot. But it was hard to find fault with Olivia, a 4-year-old girl, for not anticipating how hot Chicken McNugget would be.
“This is not the infamous hot coffee case; this is the Olivia case,” Mr. Redvid and his attorneys wrote in a statement released after the jury’s verdict.
Since the 1992 case, McDonald’s and many other coffee shops have resorted to putting larger labels on their products with more direct warnings.
For Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s does not currently offer warning labels.
Mrs. Holmes hopes they will. She said, “Hopefully McDonald’s will change their Happy Meal boxes now, to add a label or warning that the food inside comes straight out of the fryer.”