Jury Awards $800,000 to a Girl Burned by a Chicken McNugget

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

The burn happened in 2019 when she was visiting a McDonald’s at age 4, and the case drew comparisons 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.

The jury in Broward County awarded the girl, Olivia Caraballo, the 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 resulting from the injury, according to court documents. Lawyers for the family had asked for $15 million.

The suit was brought in state court by Olivia’s parents, Philana Holmes and Humberto Caraballo Estevez, against McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods, the franchise operator in Tamarac, Fla. In May, a separate jury determined that the two companies were liable for failing to provide reasonable instructions or warnings — on the packaging, for example — about the risks of injuries that could result from a Chicken McNuggets meal, which comes with pieces of white chicken meat.

As of Thursday, it was not clear whether lawyers for McDonald’s and Upchurch Foods were going to appeal the decision. McDonald’s lawyers declined to comment. The lawyers 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 counsel for the family, said that the jury’s decision amounted to “full justice” for Olivia.

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

In August 2019, Ms. Holmes ordered a six-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal for Olivia at a McDonald’s drive-through in Tamarac, a city northwest of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After she handed the nuggets to her daughter in the back seat, one piece fell on Olivia’s lap, leaving her thigh “disfigured and scarred,” according to the initial lawsuit.

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

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

The court will supervise the disbursement of the funds awarded to the child, Mr. 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 drew comparisons to a well-known lawsuit, also involving McDonalds, by a woman who was scalded by the fast-food restaurant’s coffee. In 1992, Stella Liebeck, then 79, suffered severe burns after spilling the morning brew on her lap at a McDonald’s drive-through in Albuquerque.

Ms. Liebeck’s lawsuit initially led to a whopping award of $2.9 million in damages. It transformed 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 that the hot coffee lawsuit was comparable to a typical case in tort law and had more merit than public debate had allowed, as court proceedings had revealed that 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 roughly $640,000, finding it to be a more proportionate number, he added.

Mr. Redavid acknowledged that the two McDonald’s cases seemed similar at first blush: a burned customer, a scalding item, a large payout from McDonald’s. But the circumstances were different, he said. Critics of Ms. Liebeck said she should have known a coffee was hot. But it was difficult to find fault with 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 attorneys 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 its Chicken McNuggets, McDonald’s does not currently provide warnings labels.

Ms. 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 is coming right out of the fryer.”

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