FORT LAUDERDALE — McDonald’s and a franchise holder are at fault after a hot Chicken McNugget from a Happy Meal fell on a little girl’s leg and caused second-degree burns, a jury in South Florida found in a case reminiscent of the famous hot coffee lawsuit of the 1990s.
A second jury will determine how much McDonald’s USA and its franchise owner, Upchurch Foods, will pay the child and her mother, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.
Thursday’s decision was split, with jurors finding the franchise holder liable for negligence and failure to warn customers about the risk of hot food, and McDonald’s USA liable for failing to provide instructions for safe handling of the food. McDonald’s USA was not found to be negligent, and the jury dismissed the argument that the product was defective.
“Our sympathies go out to this family for what occurred in this unfortunate incident, as we hold customer safety as one of our highest priorities,” McDonald’s owner-operator Brent Upchurch said in a statement. “We are deeply disappointed with today’s verdict because the facts show that our restaurant in Tamarac, Florida did indeed follow those protocols when cooking and serving this Happy Meal.”
Jurors heard two days of testimony and arguments about the 2019 episode that left the 4-year-old girl with a burned upper thigh.
Philana Holmes testified that she bought Happy Meals for her son and then-4-year-old daughter at a drive-thru window at a McDonald’s in Tamarac, near Fort Lauderdale, the SunSentinel reported. She handed the food to her children, who were in the back seat.
After she drove away, her daughter started screaming. The mother testified she didn’t know what was wrong until she pulled over to help the girl, Olivia Caraballo, who is now 7, the newspaper reported. She saw the burn on the girl’s leg and took photos on her iPhone, which included audio clips of the child’s screams.
The sound of the girl’s screams were played in court. The child, who is autistic, did not testify, the newspaper reported.
Lawyers for McDonald’s noted that the food had to be hot to avoid salmonella poisoning, and that the nuggets were not meant to be pressed between a seat belt and human flesh for more than two minutes.
The girl’s parents sued, saying that McDonald’s and the franchise owner failed to adequately train employees, failed to warn customers about the “dangerous” temperature of the food, and for cooking the food to a much higher temperature than necessary.
While both sides agreed the nugget caused the burns, the family’s lawyers argued the temperature was above 200 degrees (93 Celsius), while the defense said it was no more than 160 degrees (71 Celsius).
The case is likely to stoke memories of the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit of the 1990s, which became an urban legend of sorts about seemingly frivolous lawsuits, even though a jury and judge had found it anything but.
A New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck, 81, $2.7 million in punitive damages after she was scalded in 1992 by hot coffee from McDonald’s that spilled onto her lap, burning her legs, groin and buttocks, as she tried to steady the cup with her legs while prying the lid off to add cream outside a drive-thru.
She suffered third-degree burns and spent more than a week in the hospital.
She had initially asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover hospital expenses, but the company went to trial. A judge later reduced the $2.7 million award to $480,000, which he said was appropriate for the “willful, wanton, reckless” and “callous” behavior by McDonald’s.