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Court Upholds $6 Million McDonald's Strip Search Verdict

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on November 23, 2009 12:50 PM

McDonald's will have to serve up $6.1 million to plaintiff Louise Ogborn, and an additional award to former assistant manager Donna Summers, according to the Kentucky Court of Appeals decision announced last Friday. The award stems from a 2007 trial charging McDonald's with allowing the strip search, false imprisonment and sexual assault of the McDonald's employee with the unwitting collusion of her then manager, Ms. Summers.

According to the Court's opinion in McDonalds Corp v. Ogborn, McDonald's had received, between 1994 and 2004, more than 30 hoax calls to its restaurants where the caller, posing as a policeman, convinced employees to stripsearch "theft suspects."  Some calls (as in the Ogborn case) lead to sexual assault. The court found that even though McDonald's was well aware of this on-going problem, it failed to train or warn its employees about it. This lack of action lead directly to Ogborn's ordeal and the court held McDonald's fully responsible.

Upon receiving the hoax call, Summers forced Ogden to remove all her clothes and left her in a small office with no clothing or cell phone. Summers was convinced by the caller to allow Ms. Summers' fiancé, Walter Nix, to remain alone with Ogborn who, with the caller's instruction and encouragement, sexually assaulted Ogborn. Nix seved time in prison for assaulting Ogborn. Summers plead to misdemeanor unlawful imprisonment.

McDonald's position on appeal was, while admitting what happened to its employees was wrong, that neither the caller nor Nix, who actually committed the sexual assault, was an employee and therefore company should not be liable. The court disagreed. Because McDonald's had knowledge of other hoax calls and the resulting criminal activity, Nix's acts were a "foreseeable danger, one naturally resulting from McDonald's decision not to warn, train, or supervise its managers and owners that these hoax calls were an ongoing problem."

Both Ogborn and Summers underwent counseling as a result of the incident.

Ogborn and Summers were each awarded damages for emotional distress stemming from the incident. The court upheld the full amount of Ogborn's damages including the $5 million in punitive damages for McDonalds "reprehensible" behavior. Summers's punitive damages award was reduced from $1 million to $400,000 because the court found the jury verdict excessive. Summers also received $100,000 in compensatory damages. She was fired soon after the original incident. 

A former Florida prison guard was tried and acquitted for making the phone call.

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