Olivia Caraballo, 8, and her mother, Philana Holmes
Olivia Caraballo, 8, and her mother, Philana Holmes, are shown in the courtroom gallery after the jury began deliberations at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Fort Lauderdale, Florida: A South Florida jury awarded $800,000 in damages to a little girl who received second-degree burns when a hot Chicken McNugget fell on her leg as her mother pulled away from the drive-thru of a McDonald's restaurant.

Lawyers for the family of Olivia Caraballo, who was 4 when she was burned in 2019, were seeking $15 million in damages. Jurors reached their verdict after deliberating for less than two hours on Wednesday, the South Florida SunSentinel reported.

The jury's verdict form allotted $400,000 in damages for the past four years, and another $400,000 for the future from the McDonald's USA and its franchise operator, Upchurch Foods. A separate jury decided in May that the company and franchise owner were liable for the injury, which occurred outside a McDonald's in Tamarac, near Fort Lauderdale.

“I’m actually just happy that they listened to Olivia’s voice and the jury was able to decide a fair judgment,” Olivia's mother, Philana Holmes, told reporters outside the courtroom. “I’m happy with that. I honestly had no expectations, so this is more than fair for me.”

She testified on Tuesday that Olivia, now 8, calls the scar on her inner thigh her “nugget” and is fixated on having it removed, the newspaper reported.

Lawyers for McDonald's argued that the child's discomfort ended when the wound healed, which they said took about three weeks. They contended that the girl's mother is the one who has the problem with the scar, and told jurors that $156,000 should cover damages, both past and future.

“She’s still going to McDonalds, 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 her closing argument Wednesday. “She’s not bothered by the injury. This is all the mom.”

Defense attorneys declined to speak after the verdict.

Holmes testified that she had purchased Happy Meals for her son and daughter, who was sitting in the back seat, and was driving away when the nugget fell on the child's leg. She said that the girl screamed in pain, and when she pulled over in a parking lot, she realized the nugget was lodged between Oliva's thigh and the seat belt.

The mother testified that at no point did McDonald's warn her the food might be unusually hot. The company testified they follow 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.

While both sides agreed during the trial in May that the nugget caused the burns, the family’s lawyers argued the temperature was above 200 degrees (93 Celsius), while the defense said it was no more than 160 degrees (71 Celsius).

Photos the mother took of the burn and sound clips of the child's screams were played in court.

Previous lawsuits

The case may stoke memories of the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit of the 1990s, which became an urban legend of sorts about seemingly frivolous lawsuits, even though a jury and judge had found it anything but.

A New Mexico jury awarded Stella Liebeck, 81, $2.7 million in punitive damages after she was scalded in 1992 by hot coffee from McDonald’s that spilled onto her lap, burning her legs, groin and buttocks, as she tried to steady the cup with her legs while prying the lid off to add cream outside a drive-thru.

She suffered third-degree burns and spent more than a week in the hospital.

She had initially asked McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover hospital expenses, but the company went to trial. A judge later reduced the $2.7 million award to $480,000, which he said was appropriate for the “willful, wanton, reckless” and “callous” behavior by McDonald’s.