Restaurant Worker Burned Mouth Before Customer Drank Toxic Tea, Lawyer Says

Jan Harding unknowingly drank tea tainted with lye.

August 22, 2014, 8:55 AM

— -- An employee at a Utah restaurant where a customer unknowingly drank tea tainted with lye burned herself a month earlier on the same substance, the customer's attorney said.

Jan Harding, 67, was eating at a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit with her husband, Jim, Aug. 10 when she sipped her tea and started gagging and coughing. An employee mistook degreaser – made up of sodium hydroxide, or lye – for sugar, mixing it into the tea and causing extreme burns to Harding’s throat and mouth, authorities say.

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An employee at the restaurant had burned her tongue July 5 on the same substance, after she stuck her finger in a sugar container to test whether it contained any chemical cleaner and then licked her finger, family lawyer Paxton Guymon said at a Thursday news conference that was also attended by the customer's husband.

The worker’s tongue started bleeding and blisters formed, Guymon said, adding that the worker is still not back to normal.

"To me it means that the company was on notice that there was a hazardous substance that wasn't properly labeled, that wasn't properly controlled," the attorney said. "And that things should have and could have been done to prevent my client, Mrs. Harding, from being injured."

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said he’ll likely decide whether to file any criminal charges by next week.

“We’re treating this with the seriousness it deserves, and we want to do the right thing,” Gill said.

Nearly two weeks after the accident at the South Jordan, Utah, restaurant, doctors say Harding is steadily improving and able to speak. Jim Harding said his wife still suffers from nightmares as she relives the incident.

“Her memory is taking that sip and her mouth and throat being on fire, and spitting and gagging and doing everything she could to get that out of her mouth,” he said.

Her son Scott Harding is impressed by his mother’s strength. “As she continues to get better, we’re excited about that,” Scott Harding said. “We’re grateful for that.”

The worker involved in making the toxic tea no longer works for the company, the restaurant said.

“The entire Dickey’s family is saddened by the events that occurred in Utah and takes this incident very seriously,” the restaurant chain said in a statement. “There is nothing more important to us than the trust and safety of our guests.”

The company did not comment on the allegation that its employee had burned her tongue and that management knew a hazardous substance was improperly labeled.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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