A Brazos County jury on Wednesday awarded a $27 million in a lawsuit against McDonald’s relating to the 2012 deaths of two Blinn College students.
Jurors found McDonald’s negligence to be 97 percent responsible for the deaths of Denton Ward, 18, of Flower Mound, and Lauren Bailey Crisp, 19, of Flower Mound, both of whom died in the early morning hours of Feb. 18, 2012.
The remaining 3 percent of liability was laid on the men who violently attacked Ward and his friend, Tanner Giesen, 21, in the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 801 University Drive.
The jury’s verdict reflects the argument plaintiffs’ attorneys made from the start of the seven-day trial: Had Ward and Giesen not been assaulted at the McDonald’s, the car accident that occurred 11 minutes later while Samantha Bean, another friend, was attempting to get the men to the hospital would not have happened.
And because of a well-documented police record of fights and assaults at the University Drive McDonald’s in the months leading up to the incident, store managers and corporate employees had a duty to hire security to protect patrons.
It was never disputed during the trial that Crisp died in the car accident, but jurors did hear conflicting conclusions from expert witnesses as to Ward’s cause of death.
Two experts who testified for the plaintiffs asserted Ward was killed from injuries suffered while being punched, kicked and stomped on at the McDonald’s, while an expert for the defense — who was the only witness called on by McDonald’s — insisted Ward was fatally injured in the car wreck.
“The thing that sets all of this in motion, and that’s the cause test, is McDonald’s,” said Chris Hamilton, lead plaintiff attorney, in closing arguments.
Hamilton and his co-counsels, Robert Langdon and Jon Miller, spent four days putting on evidence, with much of it focused on establishing a pattern of violence at the McDonald’s and showing the subsequent lack of action taken by company employees.
Carlos Butler, a former McDonald’s general manager and local hip-hop artist, said in a video deposition played for the jury that he was unaware of any of the 20-plus incidents police responded to from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. on the weekends in the 11 months leading up to Ward and Giesen being attacked even though he had been the one to call 911 in at least one instance.
Jurors also saw video testimony from several McDonald’s corporate employees who denied having any knowledge of security issues at the location across from Texas A&M.
“It’s not about what [McDonald’s] knew, it’s about what they didn’t want to know,” Hamilton told jurors. “Their defense is, ‘I didn’t know anything about it.’”
McDonald’s attorneys Marshall Rosenberg and Paul Murphy argued the decisions made by the dead teens and their friends were what led to Crisp and Ward dying.
“Alcohol and consumption of alcohol by teenagers was the root cause,” Murphy said. “I’m not going to do a disservice to anyone and agree to some alternate reality.”
Prior to arriving at the McDonald’s, all four of the friends had been at Hurricane Harry’s drinking and left the bar in Ward’s 4Runner headed to McDonald’s.
Once they arrived, Ward and Giesen went in to use the restroom while Crisp and Bean went through the drive-thru to avoid the large crowd of people, according to testimony.
When the women rounded the corner of the drive-thru, they saw their friends getting beaten, which is when Crisp jumped out to grab Ward, her boyfriend, as Giesen was carried to the car by two unknown women and Bean hopped into the driver’s seat to try and get to the hospital.
In the minutes leading up to the accident, Bean had plenty of opportunity to stop and call for help, Murphy argued.
“They want you to get good and angry at McDonald’s, that’s it,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed by Ward’s mother, Denise Whitaker, and Crisp’s parents, Paul and Nicole Crisp, all of whom testified Friday about how their lives have been affected by the loss of their first-born children.
The jury awarded $11 million to Whitaker and $11 million to the Crisps for past and future loss of companionship and mental anguish, in addition to $5 million for the pain and mental anguish suffered by Ward, money legally bound for Whitaker.
“This won’t bring the kids back, but it does validate how their parents felt in terms of McDonald’s responsibility,” Hamilton said after the verdict. “I will tell my kids if they go to a McDonald’s at night and they don’t see an off-duty police officer, don’t get out of the car.”
It’s expected McDonald’s will appeal the verdict.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.