Labor & Employment

Appeals Court OKs $5M in Punitives for Victim of Phone Hoax Strip Search


A Kentucky appeals court cut from $1 million to $400,000 a punitive damages award to a McDonald’s manager who was fired and charged with a crime after she says she was duped into pressuring a young worker to comply with instructions from a prank caller to submit to a strip search.

But the state Court of Appeals upheld a $5 million award of punitive damages to the then 18-year-old worker who was targeted by the fake law enforcement officer on the phone. The restaurant chain could have foreseen and prevented the incident by alerting and training employees, reports the Courier-Journal.

In its ruling Friday, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel noted that the hoax was one of some 30 incidents that had occurred at McDonald’s restaurants over a decade. Proper training of employees, the court said, likely would have prevented the young worker’s three-hour ordeal, in which she was also sexually abused.

Punitive damages were justified by the “reprehensible” behavior of the company, which repeatedly “placed a higher value on corporate reputation than on the safety of its own employees,” the court said in its written opinion.

The two women also got $100,000 and $1.1 million in compensatory damages, which were upheld, for total awards of $500,000 and $6.1 million. In distinguishing between the two, the court pointed to the physical nature of the targeted worker’s ordeal. She allegedly suffered emotional and psychological trauma as a result.

Counsel for McDonald’s had argued that it wasn’t liable for the criminal acts of third parties and said the plaintiff’s recourse should have been limited to worker’s compensation. However, standard tort remedies were available, the appeals court said, because she had clocked out before the incident and hence was not officially at work at the time, the newspaper reports.

Meanwhile, because the incident occurred in a workplace setting, it constituted sexual harassment, the panel found.

The restaurant chain also argued unsuccessfully that the plaintiff had consented to the strip-search to clear her name.

McDonald’s hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, and says in a written statement that the mistreatment resulted from a malicious hoax by individuals outside the restaurant.

At last report, the plaintiff, who is now in her early 20s, was planning to use the money to go to law school.

Hat tip: QSRweb.

Earlier coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “$6.1 M Award in McDonald’s Strip Search”

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