Dickey’s Barbecue Employee Accidentally Uses Lye Rather Than Sugar To Make Sweet Iced Tea and Poisoned Customer

10342429_10152397718914106_6678266630162495328_nThere is a truly horrific story out of South Jordan, Utah where retired teacher Jan Harding is in critical condition after drinking tea accidentally poisoned with an industrial oven cleaner by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. An employee confused the oven cleaner with sugar in making the sweet tea for customers. The tort liability is obvious in such a case and could involve both negligence and strict liability claims given the involvement of food or drink served at a restaurant. The chemical has been described as Lye in some news accounts.

Harding, 67, went to the iced tea dispenser and filled up her cup and took a sip. She immediately spat it out and told her husband “I think I just drank acid.” That little amount was enough to send her to the hospital in critical condition and almost killed her. She later learned that she would need surgery because deep, ulcerated burns covering the upper esophagus.

The employee had confused “clean force fryer cleaner” with the sugar in preparing the tea. That product contains sodium hydroxide at an extremely high concentration.

While the Sheriff is investigating, there does not appear to be any crime involved unless the employee was illegal or the chemical is banned from being present in a food preparation area. None of that appears to be the case according to news reports. However, the violation of food safety rules can create criminal liability. If not, the matter would be left in the torts system but the liability obviously would likely be high given the pain and suffering involved in such an accident.

Dickey’s issued the following statement:

The entire Dickey’s family is saddened by the events that occurred in Utah and takes this incident very seriously. We are keeping the entire Harding family in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.

We would like to reassure the public that this was an isolated incident in South Jordan, Utah. Nothing like this has occurred in the 73 years we have operated.

I would certainly hope that the use of oven cleaner to make iced tea is an “isolated incident.” However, I expect that I am not the only one interested in knowing what training and container rules were in place in the chain to keep such chemicals away from food preparation areas. I looked at the Utah health code and obviously there are provisions addressing this issue:

4.7.3 Storage – Separation – Poisonous or Toxic Materials.IPoisonous or toxic materials shall be stored so they can not contaminate food, equipment, utensils, linens, and single-service and single-use articles by:

(i) Separating the poisonous or toxic materials by spacing or partitioning; and

(ii) Locating the poisonous or toxic materials in an area that is not above food, equipment, utensils, linens, and single-service or single-use articles. This paragraph does not apply to equipment and utensil cleaners and sanitizers that are stored in warewashing areas for availability and convenience if the materials are stored to prevent contamination of food, equipment, utensils, linens, and single-service and single-use articles.

That would allow an argument for negligence per se on violations and could create potential criminal liability.

24 thoughts on “Dickey’s Barbecue Employee Accidentally Uses Lye Rather Than Sugar To Make Sweet Iced Tea and Poisoned Customer”

  1. “That is how T-baggers commit suicide.” This story is about someone injured by drinking lye, not watching Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The confusion is understandable.

  2. I’ve worked with sodium hydroxide before, both at work and at home. I think “burned” is more accurate than “poisoned.” It produces a severe chemical burn. Apparently the poor woman swallowed some before it registered as caustic.

    It’s a strong alkali, basically the exact opposite of a strong acid, but with the same effect – burns. It would be like she swallowed acid.

    The poor woman.

    There were so many safety precautions I had to follow. For it to be anywhere even remotely near a food prep area is outrageous. And who the heck dumps in a white powder to iced tea without READING THE LABEL?

  3. Liability is on the owner/operator.

    Back in the ’80s I was managing a Burger King and we stationed our ketchup dispenser on the wall next to the prep sink that doubled as a hand wash sink. The mounted soap dispenser was busted and needed to be replaced so to maintain compliance with health codes, we opted to designate a bottle similar to the ketchup/mustard bottles used to make sandwiches as the soap bottle. The health department didn’t have an issue with its use until a time came shortly thereafter, an employee grabbed the wrong bottle and filled it with ketchup and used it to make sandwiches with.

    Long story short: The owner/franchisee had to settle several poisoning cases and local codes were rewritten to ensure other businesses didn’t resort to similar temporary means of providing soap for employees to wash up with.

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