A Florida jury on Wednesday awarded a 7-year-old girl $800,000 in damages for the pain and mental anguish she suffered when a Chicken McNugget fell on her thigh, causing second-degree burns.
The burn incident occurred in 2019 when she was visiting 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 burned by hot coffee more than 30 years earlier.
According to court documents, a jury in Broward County awarded the girl, Olivia Caraballo, damages for pain, suffering and other forms of mental anguish — $400,000 for her pain and an additional $400,000 for any future suffering as a result of the injury. The family’s attorneys sought $15 million.
A lawsuit was filed in state court by Olivia’s parents, Philana Holmes and Humberto Caraballo Estevez, against McDonald’s and franchise operator Upchurch Foods in Tamarack, Florida. In May, a separate jury determined that both companies were liable for failing to place proper instructions or warnings on the packaging, for example — about the risks of injury from eating Chicken McNuggets, which comes with pieces of white chicken meat.
As of Thursday, it was unclear whether lawyers for McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods would appeal the decision. McDonald’s attorneys declined to comment. Lawyers for Upchurch Foods did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. Under Florida law, he has 15 days to seek a new trial or 30 days to appeal.
The family’s lead attorney, Jordan Radavid, said the jury’s verdict was “absolute justice” for Olivia.
“For years, the defendants said we had no case and that they had no liability,” Mr. Redavid said. He said the damages awarded were far in excess of the $156,000 that McDonald’s attorneys had proposed to the jury in their closing remarks.
In August 2019, Ms. Holmes ordered a six-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal for Olivia at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Tamarack, a city northwest of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. According to the preliminary lawsuit, after she passed the nugget to her daughter in the back seat, a piece fell into Olivia’s lap, leaving her thigh “distorted and bruised.”
On Thursday, Ms Holmes said in a telephone interview that she was “satisfied with the verdict” and was pleased that the jury considered her daughter’s pain.
“All I wanted was for Olivia’s voice to be heard,” Ms Holmes said.
The court will oversee the distribution of the money awarded to the child, possibly through a court-appointed guardian who will propose how the money should be distributed, Mr Redavid said. The money is likely to be kept in an investment account until Olivia becomes an adult, he added.
The case was compared to a famous lawsuit involving McDonald’s, by a woman who was scalded by a fast-food restaurant’s coffee. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, then 79 years old, suffered severe burns after spilling her morning drink on her lap at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque.
Ms. Liebeck’s lawsuit initially led to a whopping $2.9 million in damages. This turned the McDonald’s case into a byword for excessive litigation, said Ryan Calo, a professor who teaches tort law at the University of Washington School of Law.
Professor Callow said the Hot Coffee case was tantamount to a specific case of tort law and had more merit than a public debate. The plaintiffs, who were held partially liable by the jury, nevertheless managed with some success to change the practices of a giant corporate giant, he said. A judge later reduced Ms. Liebeck’s award to approximately $640,000, he said, because the number was more proportionate.
Mr. Radavid acknowledged that both McDonald’s cases seem similar at first glance: a burned customer, a burned object, a large payout 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 4-year-old Olivia, because she didn’t anticipate just how hot a Chicken McNugget could be.
“It is not the infamous hot-coffee affair; This is Olivia’s case,” Mr. Redavid and his attorneys wrote in a statement released after the jury’s decision.
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 its Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s does not currently offer a warning label.
Ms Holmes hopes they will. “Hopefully, McDonald’s will now change their Happy Meal boxes,” she said, “to add a label or warning that the food inside is coming straight out of the fryer.”