Ronald McDonald may want to look into hiring new lawyers. After suffering a major labor-law setback two days ago, the burger-and-fries purveyor got hit with a $27 million verdict in a bizarre case stemming from parking-lot violence at a Texas restaurant.
The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board on Tuesday said McDonald’s should be treated as a defendant alongside its franchisees in scores of allegations of management misconduct filed by fast-food workers. As my Bloomberg Businessweek colleague Josh Eidelson astutely noted, the entire fast-food business model suffered a blow since “giving McDonald’s shared responsibility for how franchisees treat workers could force corporate headquarters to get involved more closely with everything from potential unionization to wages.”
The legal woes for McDonald’s worsened on Wednesday after the company lost a civil suit over a claim that lax security led to the death of two teenagers. Bloomberg News laid out the grim facts:
Denton James Ward, 18, was beaten to death by a mob in February 2012, and his girlfriend, Lauren Bailey Crisp, 19, died in a traffic accident in a futile attempt to bring Ward to a hospital. The families of both teens sued McDonald’s, claiming the restaurant chain didn’t protect patrons at its College Station, Texas, location even though local police had been repeatedly called to break up fights. A Bryan, Texas, state court jury awarded the Ward family $16 million and the Crisp family $11 million.
“The night these two kids died, this was a dangerous location, and McDonald’s knew it,” Chris Hamilton, an attorney for the families, said in a statement. “Yet they did nothing to prevent their senseless deaths.” Heidi Barker, a spokeswoman for the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment on the verdict.
It goes without saying that these deaths reflect poorly on the state of civilization in at least one neighborhood in College Station. According to testimony, a mob of 15 to 20 people brutally beat Ward and a friend. Still, there’s a lot about the case that makes one wonder about the rationality of the civil justice system.
First, it seems quite a stretch to hold a restaurant chain culpable for a death that occurs in a remote traffic wreck. McDonald’s argued in court that both victims died in the car crash—a contention that apparently didn’t impress the jury.
Lawyers for the victims’ families emphasized in court that McDonald’s failed to hire a security guard or install surveillance equipment even though police had been called to break up fights at the College Station parking lot more than 20 times in the year leading up to the fatal attack. It’s not at all clear, however, what an unarmed rent-a-cop or a video camera system would have done to stop 15 or 20 bloodthirsty hooligans. If the police were continually being called to this restaurant, how about posting a squad car there late at night until the cops could figure out who or what was behind all the violence?
Then there’s this strange fact, noted in a press statement by the victorious plaintiffs’ lawyers: “One of the attackers, Marcus Jones, was sentenced to 90 days in jail for assaulting Mr. Ward’s friend. No other arrests were made.”
Come again? A parking lot that had become a gangland fight club, two dead kids, 15 to 20 attackers, and the police could identify only one perpetrator? That bad guy served three months? And that was the end of it?
Maybe this case will remind business owners to take security more seriously. It sure sounds, though, like the local public specialists in security—the police and prosecutors in College Station—need an even more urgent reminder. The $27 million judgment against McDonald’s doesn’t address that seemingly urgent problem.