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. After doing their best for the customer’s recovery and applying at least a Danger formula to make sure it never happens again, they should promote themselves like mad as to having good products etc. in the wake of this bad publicity. (just good promotion, no excuses)

  2. Raff,

    Looks like Utah has a unique tort recovery statue. I think they are limited to 450k but could be reduced based upon employee negligence and notice requirements….

  3. I hope the victim can recover fully, but Darren is correct that it is a terrible ordeal.

    1. rafflaw – you can recover. The person is in pain and I have the feeling that the BBQ is doing their best to take care of them. They seem like stand-up people.

  4. A. This is why kitchens are supposed to be inspected. There are rules/laws in place to prevent this kind of accident.
    B. In my experience, the best way to keep from getting your ass sued off is to step in, pay for expenses and hospital bills, don’t hide behind an attorney (no offense). It’s the same with doctors: one of the best indicators of whether a doctor will be sued is whether or not they have some kind of personal bond with the patient.

  5. This story is odd. Absolutely no information on the employee responsible. Why is that? Also absolutely nothing on how the mistake was made. How long had the employee worked there? Had they received any kind of training? Were they a very young trainee? Could they read and write? Did they come with references? Did they have a criminal record? Were they mentally normal? Did they have a normal IQ? Why the mystery? If this event is just something that could happen to anybody, we need a bit more information.

  6. Some of us were clearly born yesterday. Just to enlighten, not until just recently, there have been substances consumed by humans that negatively affect performance. Not limited to alcohol, prescription and non-prescription drugs (allergy medication, my personal favorite), other native-born herbs and flora, (once again, cucumbers being my personal downfall).
    But I’m sure marijuana legalization will be the sole factor of destruction of the pillars of civilization.

  7. Cleaning supplies and food should never be in the same area. Cleaning with toxic substances should not be undertaken while cooking. I cook as little as possible but that just seems so elementary. Training of all employees should include that information, with emphasis.

  8. When I graduated from high school I worked in a cafe for the summer and was assigned to scrub out the garbage cans. They were expected to be sparkling clean when I was done so I mixed Ajax cleaner and Clorox, so I would be doubly sure they would be clean. Any chemistry majors here?

    Let us just say that mistakes can occur.

  9. Norwegians dry codfish in lye and call it lutefisk, Italians dry codfish in salt and baccala. That’s why there are millions of Italian restaurants and no Norwegian ones.

  10. I can’t imagine anyone keeping sugar and cleaning supplies even close to each other in our personal kitchens, why would this happen at a restaurant?

    In any case, I hope the woman who was poisoned recovers fully. There will be plenty of time to point fingers after that.

  11. I am glad Dickeys is “praying” but I wonder if they have stepped up to pay medical and other expenses. This is the kind of “mistake” that illustrates how badly fast food kitchens are managed and regulated and a serious lack of training and oversight. A full and entailed investigation is warranted.

    My heart goes out to the seriously injured victim and I wish her a complete recovery.

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