How do you put a price on the pain of a 4-year-old child?
A Broward jury decided the answer was $800,000 Wednesday afternoon, the amount in damages McDonald’s and a franchise operator will now have to pay a girl who received second-degree burns from a Chicken McNugget in 2019, a substantial decrease from the $15 million the family’s lawyers had asked for.
Jurors handed in a verdict form that allotted $400,000 in damages for the past four years, and $400,000 for the future. They reached their verdict after deliberating less than two hours Wednesday.
“I’m actually just happy that they listened to Olivia’s voice and the jury was able to decide a fair judgment,” the girl’s mother, Philana Holmes, told reporters outside the courtroom Wednesday. “I’m happy with that. I honestly had no expectations, so this is more than fair for me.”
Lawyers for the family had argued that $15 million is the least the corporation and its franchise operator, Upchurch Foods, can do to cover Olivia Caraballo’s past and future. The girl, now 8, calls the scar left on her inner thigh her “nugget” and is fixated on getting it removed, Holmes testified Tuesday.
Her attorneys said she deserved $5 million to cover the last four years, and $10 million to cover the next 74 years, the rest of her estimated life.
“This is a verdict for all time,” John Fischer, an attorney for the family, said in closing arguments Wednesday. “When we walk out of those doors, that’s it. We don’t get to come back and say let’s check on Olivia in five years, let’s check on her in 10 years… you have to do it now or you can never do it again.”
But lawyers for McDonald’s had argued that Olivia’s discomfort ended when the wound healed, which they said took three weeks. Holmes, they said, is the one who still has a problem with the scar. They said $156,000 should cover Olivia’s past and future.
“She’s still going to McDonalds, she still asks to go to McDonald’s, she’s still driving through the drive-through with her mom, getting chicken nuggets,” defense attorney Jennifer Miller said in her closing argument Wednesday. “She’s not bothered by the injury. This is all the mom.”
A separate jury had decided in May that McDonald’s and Upchurch were to blame for the girl’s injuries after the scalding Chicken McNugget fell on her lap during a family trip to a Tamarac McDonald’s drive-through.
Holmes had testified that she bought Happy Meals for her son and daughter, handing the food to them in the back seat before driving away. At no point, she said, did McDonald’s warn her that the food might be unusually hot.
When her daughter began screaming in pain, Holmes pulled into a parking lot, where she noticed the burn. Pictures she took of the burn, and sound clips of Olivia’s screams, were shown and played in court again Tuesday, as they were in the May trial.
Jurors also heard testimony from Olivia’s parents and medical experts who examined the burn. In the initial weeks, the wound was bright and red, so painful that Olivia would wet herself rather than take her underwear off because she was scared of touching it.
The burn has since become a small, brown, raised scar that causes her no physical pain. Defense attorneys pointed to multiple doctor’s appointments after the burn in which pain was not mentioned.
“Children are resilient,” Miller said Wednesday. “We know for a fact that Olivia got over this. Her doctors said it, not me.”
Olivia’s attorneys argued that the pain is now emotional rather than physical, and will remain with Olivia for the rest of her life. No surgery or treatment will fully remove the scar, only “revise” it, doctors said.
“It’s not perfection, it’s not a badge of honor to have a scar as a woman,” Keyla Smith, another attorney for the family, said in a rebuttal Wednesday. “It’s not fair at all, but that’s the society we live in.”
Smith told reporters after the verdict that “the jury spoke.”
“We asked for what we think is fair, what the evidence supports,” she said.
Fischer added that the firm “fought to get here” in the first place, so any amount was a victory.
Lawyers for McDonald’s declined to comment immediately after the verdict. The company’s representative who appeared in court, Melina Hipskind, also declined. McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment later Wednesday.
The case is reminiscent of the “hot coffee” lawsuit in 1994, in which McDonald’s was famously ordered to pay $3 million to a New Mexico woman after a spilled cup of coffee left her with third-degree burns on her thighs. A judge later reduced the punitive damages to less than $500,000.
Holmes said she hopes McDonald’s starts putting warnings on their chicken nugget boxes, like the cautionary labels on their hot beverages, though they have no legal obligation to do so.
For now, Olivia “continues her speech therapy, continues school, continues being a beautiful little girl,” Holmes added. “And at some point, hopefully gets the scar revised.”