The idea of finding a foreign object in your food is a horrifying notion. Few things can gross people out like a story about someone finding a hair, fingernail, bandaid, bugs, or dead animals in a meal. But as bad as many of those things sound, it can get worse. While not as gross as the aforementioned items, cleaning products can be far more dangerous. When a business like a restaurant has to rely on those chemicals to keep a sanitary work environment, great caution has to be taken to make sure those items are kept away from food and beverage. If that doesn’t happen, you get a case like what happened in 2014 at a Cracker Barrel in Marion County, Tennessee.
The night before William Cronnon came in for lunch at Cracker Barrel, a pitcher had been left out that was filled with a combination of water and a cleaning chemical called Eco-San. Cracker Barrel employees in that location were allegedly taught to soak parts of the soda dispensers overnight in the mixture to clean and disinfect them. Instead of doing so in a special, labeled container, they did so in an unmarked water pitcher. The next day when William Cronnon needed a refill of water, it was that same unmarked pitcher, still full of the cleaning solution and water mixture, that his server filled his glass with.
Cronnon began drinking it quickly, too quickly to stop himself from swallowing several times and realizing something was terribly wrong. According to information from the makers of Eco-San, the chemical is harmful if swallowed, and medical attention should be sought immediately if ingested. A note is made that vomiting should not be induced, presumably because with chemicals like this, they will cause burning to surfaces they come into contact with. And that kind of damage to the esophagus needs to be minimized. It was too late for Cronnon to avoid a negative outcome though, according to his attorneys, even though he survived the incident he has since suffered from “regular cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and reflux pain after meals.” None of this is very surprising given the nature of what he ingested.
It has taken almost eight years for Cronnon to have his day in court, and for a jury to decide if he was entitled to compensatory damages. Indeed, they did find in his favor. The breakdown of the payout includes $730,000 for medical bills past and present, $3.6 million for the emotional distress and permanent alterations this has made to his life, and punitive damages of $5 million, effective to send Cracker Barrel a message that they really screwed this up. These verdicts were reached in under 30 minutes.
Due to a stipulation in Tennessee law that limits the amount a person can receive in a civil case, it’s more than likely that Cronnon will instead receive around $6 million. Sadly, Cracker Barrel could draw this out even more if they petition for a new trial. They’ve already indicated dismay at the result stating:
“While we have great respect for the legal process, we are obviously disappointed by and strongly disagree with the jury’s award in this case, which involved an unfortunate and isolated incident that occurred at one of our stores eight years ago.”Cracker Barrel statement on Cronnon Verdict – NBC News
Maybe this particular incident at Cracker Barrel was isolated, but this isn’t the first time chemical agents have wound up in people’s drinks. In August of 2014, Jan Harding was getting a glass of sweet tea from a self-service station at Dickey’s Barbecue in South Jordan, Utah. She had no way of knowing that an employee there had mistaken the lye-based cleaning solution, commonly used for degreasing the grills, as sweetener for the tea mixture. Harding can be seen in the restaurant’s camera footage detecting that something is terribly wrong and trying to wash her mouth out.
Harding would recover from this and she and the restaurant would later settle out of court, though she went on in interviews to state how important it was to her that this would send a message for restaurants to exercise more caution with their safety regulations. It’s sadly coincidental that both of these incidents would happen in the same year, only four months apart. Sadly, Jan Harding passed away in 2019 from unrelated brain cancer, which makes this happening to her in the last five years of her life all the more tragic.
Accidents happen, but lessons need to be learned from them. What Cronnon and Harding both went through was is terrifying to think about. Their pain and injuries should serve to remind business owners of why you can’t be too careful when it comes to the safety of your customers and clients. In the food industry this goes doubly so. We put a tremendous amount of trust in the people who prepare our food; trust that is contingent upon our safety being taken into account. Money can’t give a person their life or health back, but maybe the threat of that financial loss can keep businesses from putting health on the back burner.