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Florida Jury Awards 8-Year-Old $800,000 for McNugget Burn

A box of McDonald's chicken nuggets
By Natasha Bakirci, LLB, LLM | Last updated on

Didn't you love going to Mickey D's as a kid? Wasn't the Happy Meal the best thing ever? For most of us, those iconic Golden Arches are enough to send children yelling for their parents to pull over and get them every kid's dream combo: a fun-size meal, with the added bonus of the surprise toy.

That is, until something goes wrong — say, dropping a Chicken McNugget? You wouldn't think this little mishap would lead to newsworthy consequences, but one Olivia Caraballo wasn't so lucky four years ago when this happened to her.

A McNugget Mishap Leads to Lawsuit

Olivia was only four years old in August 2019 when she opened her McDonald's Happy Meal in her parents' car at a drive-thru in Tamarac, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her choice that day was Chicken McNuggets, a popular selection among kids her age. But, according to her mother's testimony, after the nuggets were handed to Olivia in the back seat, one of them fell onto the girl's lap and got lodged between her thigh and the seat belt.

If that doesn't sound like it would be a big deal, things quickly escalated. Olivia's family sought $15 million in damages; according to the initial lawsuit, the "dangerously hot" McNugget left her thigh "disfigured and scarred," and she sustained second-degree burns. In court, lawyers for the family shared photos of the burns, as well as an audio recording of the girl's screams during the injury. Her mom testified that at no point did McDonald's warn her that the food might be unusually hot.

Both sides agreed during the trial that the nugget caused the burns, but the family's lawyers argued that the temperature was above 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 Celsius), while the defense said it was no more than 160 degrees Fahrenheit (71 Celsius).

The McDefense

Attorneys for McDonald's testified that the restaurant follows food safety rules, which require McNuggets to be hot enough to avoid salmonella poisoning, and that what happens with the food once it leaves the drive-thru window is beyond their control.

McDonald's argued that the family should receive only $156,000 because the girl's pain had ended after the burn healed in three weeks.

"She's still going to McDonald's, she still asks to go to McDonald's, she's still driving through the drive-thru with her mom, getting chicken nuggets," defense attorney Jennifer Miller said in court.

Jury Finds McDonald's Liable

In May 2023, a jury found McDonald's, along with Upchurch Foods, who operated the franchise involved in the case, liable for the child's injury. They found that the two companies were responsible for failing to provide reasonable instructions or warnings about the risks of injuries that could result from a Chicken McNuggets meal. For example, there could have been warnings on the box of nuggets or elsewhere on the packaging of the Happy Meal.

On 19 July 2023, a different jury in Fort Lauderdale deliberated for less than two hours before reaching the verdict about damages. Olivia was awarded $800,000 in damages from McDonald's and Upchurch Foods for "pain and suffering" as well as "mental anguish." This amount was composed of damages of $400,000 for the past four years and $400,000 for the future. Her family's legal team called the decision "momentous."

It's not clear whether the corporations' defense lawyers will appeal the decision. Under Florida law, they have 15 days to seek a new trial or 30 days to appeal.

Mickey D's in Hot Water (And Coffee)​

As you may know, this is not the first time that McDonald's has had to pay an injured customer a large amount of compensation for burning them.

The well-known 1992 case of Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, which is often cited as an example of excessive US litigation or frivolous lawsuits, concerned a 79-year-old woman who suffered severe third-degree burns to over 16 percent of her body when a steaming hot cup of java from McCafe spilled on her lap in an Alburquerque drive-thru. And she wasn't crying over spilled milk; the burns required a week's hospitalization for Stella Liebeck. The judge in that case finally reduced the jury's punitive damages award of $2.7 million to $640,000.

But that wasn't even close to the last lawsuit against the fast-food giant over coffee burns. There was a similar case that followed in 2012. And even as recently as 2019 and 2020, two other cases were filed in Texas against McDonald's alleging injuries from spilling coffee that was far too hot.

Too Hot to Handle

Hopefully the internationally renowned burger chain will take heed and add an obvious and clear warning on Happy Meals, especially considering that they're usually devoured by accident-prone children. Such warnings to kids (or at least to their parents) would probably be useful in reminding hungry families with impatient kids that certain items might be particularly hot and potentially dangerous, having just come out of the deep-fryer.

Accidents happen. Sometimes we are partly to blame, and sometimes not. What's for sure is that no one would want to go through the excruciating pain of a serious burn, or — possibly worse — watch their children suffer the same. If you feel that you have been a victim of a failure to warn about a dangerous food item, or have been injured in any way after purchasing something, you can contact a local product liability attorney.

Maybe one takeaway from these cases is that we should be extra careful when consuming hot food and drink, particularly when doing so in a precarious vehicle.

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