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Chemical-Laced Tea Burns Utah Grandmother: Who May Be Liable?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on August 18, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Utah woman is fighting for her life after drinking sweet tea contaminated with a toxic cleaning solvent.

The 67-year-old woman was eating lunch at a Dickey's Barbecue restaurant near Salt Lake City, and filled her cup with sweet tea from a self-serve drinking fountain, reports The Associated Press. After taking one sip of the drink, she told her husband, "I think I just drank acid." She was taken to a local hospital where she remained in critical condition for four days after the incident.

What was the toxic substance, and how did it end up in this grandmother's tea?

Drink Contained Lye

Investigators determined that the woman's drink was contaminated with lye, an industrial cleaner used as a degreasing agent and present in drain cleaners such as Drano.

Though police are still investigating how the lye ended up in the sweet tea, the family's attorney told the AP that they believe a worker mistook the chemical -- which was in powder form -- for sugar and accidentally mixed it into the sweet tea.

Although it appears the incident was accidental, the worker responsible could potentially be liable for negligence. Negligence typically makes those who fail to live up to the standard of care owed to other people responsible for the damages their actions cause.

In this case, the worker would likely have a duty to use reasonable care when preparing food and drinks for consumption by the public, which he or she may have violated by mistaking the lye for sugar, even if it was done so accidentally.

Could the Restaurant Be Held Liable?

In addition to the individual worker's potential liability, the owners of the restaurant could also be held liable for the woman's injuries.

Generally speaking, employers can be held liable for the negligence of an employee, if the negligence occurs while the employee is acting within the scope of her job duties. The owners of the restaurant may also have been negligent themselves, if they failed to use reasonable care in the storage of dangerous chemicals or in training their employees.

The woman's lawyer told the AP he would wait for the results of the police investigation before figuring out what legal action to take.

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