January 19, 2022
Sharon Beaty’s lawsuit resulted in a jury verdict that not only awarded her damages, but caused one of the U.S.’s most well-known restaurant corporations to opt for safer cooking practices.
On March 26, 2018, Sharon Beaty of Florence, South Carolina pulled the leftovers from her Outback Steakhouse dinner out of the fridge for lunch. She was only one bite in to her Alice Springs Chicken, a boneless grilled chicken breast smothered in mushrooms, bacon and cheese, when she felt a sharp piercing pain in her throat. The culprit was a thin, one-inch wire from a grill brush, lodged in her esophagus, and extracted two days later by a at McLeod Regional Medical Center.
More than three years later, a state court jury awarded Beaty $315,000 for her harrowing experience. Beaty underwent an emergency endoscopic surgery, with medical bills totaling nearly $45,000. As a result of the litigation, Bloomin’ Brands, Inc., the parent company of the restaurant chain, committed to cleaning their grills with a safer, wire-bristle free grill brush. The jury declined to impose punitive damages in the bifurcated trial. Nonetheless, says attorney Liam Duffy, who represented Beaty, that corporate change was as important as the verdict.
“My client was pleased that the jury listened attentively and recognized this was a serious and scary event. To her, the verdict was important but equally important is that her case has brought about change that will ultimately protect others. She was part of changing the restaurant industry to make it a little safer,” says Duffy of the Yarborough Applegate law firm of Charleston, South Carolina.
Duffy says that the judge limited their search for other similar incidents to three years of records from Outback Steakhouse restaurants, which turned up about eight incidents of wire bristles contaminating food. Had Beaty been able to pursue more years throughout the entire Bloomin’ Brands network of chain restaurants, there likely would have been more. Bloomin’ Brands boasts more than 1,450 casual dining restaurants worldwide – including Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, and Aussie Grill by Outback.
Duffy says that Outback claimed ignorance of the problem, because injury claims were handled by a third-party administrator that did not communicate the repeated complaints back to corporate headquarters. Nonetheless, Outback had been sued before for grill brush wire injuries. In September 2017, actress/model Alexis Eichelsbacher of Pittsburgh sued Bloomin’ Brands, alleging that she ingested a wire from a grill brush after eating a take-out steak dinner from a local Outback location. According to the complaint, Eichelsbacher suffered two months of intermittent pain and bloating in her abdomen, and nausea, consulting with her gynecologist, and hospital emergency room personnel, before a laparotomy located the black wire bristle, which had perforated her bowel, necessitating a repair when it was removed.
The safety hazards posed by wire grill brushes that shed their bristles, embedding themselves in food, and eventually, different parts of the human body, gained high profile in 2012. U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and Consumer Reports joined together to call on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to determine whether grill brushes were safe and to warn consumers of the potential hazard, based on incidents that occurred in New Jersey and Washington State. (Read: The Ill of the Grill )
In 2016, the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery published a study based on the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database, which samples emergency department visits for wire bristle injuries. It found that from 2002 to 2014, an estimated 1,700 individuals went to an emergency room after ingesting a wire bristle in grilled food. Not surprisingly, the summer months saw the vast majority of the visits. The researchers concluded that wire bristle ingestion wasn’t a common injury.
However, as the medical literature attests, it can have serious consequences. Documented serious cases of grill brush ingestion include those in which the bristle lodged itself in the abdominal wall, the bowel, a liver abscess, and a stomach fistula. In one 2014 case study, the victim died of peritonitis when the wire perforated the terminal ileum.
One case involved a Michigan woman who lodged a wire bristle in her throat after a single bite of a hotdog. Linda Pelham suffered six months of pain and bouts of difficulty swallowing and breathing. While physicians located the source — a wire grill brush bristle stuck in her throat – the bristle moved from one side to the other. At one point, it was lodged too close to the jugular and carotid arteries to operate. They were finally able to extract the wire when it moved into a safer position.
Cases like Beaty’s illustrate why an outcome that includes changing corporate conduct, such as ushering in new grill-cleaning equipment at a restaurant giant like Bloomin’ Brands, is so significant.
“If possible, we try to get effect a safety change into as many settlements as we can,” Duffy says. “Of course, clients want to be made whole, but what is often more important to them—and to us as trial lawyers—is what can we can do to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else in the future?”