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Wendy's meal caused 11-year-old permanent brain damage, suit claims

A family is suing Wendy's parent company, claiming its food gave their daughter an E. coli infection that's given her permanent health issues.
Wendy's meal caused 11-year-old permanent brain damage, suit claims
Posted at 6:25 PM, Apr 19, 2024

It was supposed to be a typical post-sports dinner: Aspen Lamfers headed over to a Wendy's in her Michigan city and ate a hamburger, chicken nuggets and French fries after her team's softball practice. Today, that meal Aspen ate at 11 years old has continued to leave its mark, and her family is taking legal action because of it.

In a lawsuit filed against Wendy's parent company, Meritage Hospitality Group, Aspen's family alleges the Wendy's in Jenison gave her a STEC infection, which occurs when a person eats something contaminated by certain E. coli. A week after her first onset of symptoms, Aspen was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a rare complication from STEC infection that can be life-threatening. 

She was soon diagnosed with Stage 3 acute kidney injury/failure, acute encephalopathy — meaning neurological damage — and hyperglycemia from pancreas damage. She had seizures, transient paralysis on her left side, consistent vomiting and other challenges as a result, the lawsuit said. 

Records included in the complaint assert that the Wendy's location knew it was in violation of multiple health codes that led Aspen to contract the STEC infection and worsening symptoms thereafter. One Ottawa County Health Department inspection listed in the complaint occurred days before Aspen ate there on Aug. 1, 2022, and lists 17 citations, including moldy food, dirty utensils, undated produce and ineffective sanitizing solutions. 

Aspen's mom, who is listed as the plaintiff in the suit, claims this amounts to Wendy's being negligent in keeping its restaurant safe for customers, leaving her daughter to have permanent impairments. 

The suit says Aspen has continued to have erratic blood sugar levels since her hospital discharge, causing her to now be diagnosed as diabetic. She's also been diagnosed with focal epilepsy and has had seizures after missing just one dose of anti-seizure medication, which her mom states will affect her future ability to have children as taking the medicine while pregnant can cause serious birth defects. 

Aspen has also continued to be on blood pressure medication due to persistent hypertension, she'll likely have weakness on her left-side for the rest of her life and she has lasting cognitive deficits that have caused a significant decline in her academic abilities. Before her infection, the suit states Aspen scored in the 70th percentile for math on a state assessment test. After, she scored in the 9th percentile.

The Lamfers are asking Wendy's for $20 million to recover all the damages they have incurred since Aspen became infected, including past and future "extreme pain and suffering," health complications, "loss of earning capacity" and "loss of life expectancy." 

As of now, the family's attorney says Wendy's hasn't been cooperative with any of the family's claims, with or without the law being involved.

"Aspen's life has been forever changed because of this blatant disregard for the health and safety of the public. Despite our best efforts, Meritage Hospitality Group has been unwilling or unable to engage in any effort to resolve Aspen's claims without litigation," Tom Worsfold told Scripps News.

Wendy's hasn't responded to Scripps News' request for comment as of Friday afternoon. 

The case is related to a known E. coli outbreak that the CDC linked to Wendy's restaurants in several states in 2022. 

The federal agency said more than 80% of sick people who public health officials interviewed had reported eating at a Wendy's restaurant before getting sick, many of them eating sandwiches with romaine lettuce. To note, Aspen Lamfers did not eat lettuce at the Jenison Wendy's.

SEE MORE: Wendy's Pulls Lettuce From Sandwiches Amid E. Coli Outbreak

However, these interviews didn't lead officials to track down which ingredient caused the outbreak, and there wasn't enough information collected before the outbreak ended to determine the source either, the CDC said.

Data shows 109 people were sickened in the outbreak, but the CDC says the actual number is likely higher due to many people not testing for E. coli and/or recovering without medical care. Of the 109 people, 67 lived in Michigan, as do the Lamfers.

The family's lawsuit states the OCHD connected an unusual increase in STEC infections in local hospitals to the Jenison Wendy's 11 days after Aspen ate there, the same day she was diagnosed with HUS. 

The connection prompted the health department to investigate and perform another inspection in which they found employees not washing their hands or changing their gloves, a can of Raid pesticide in the kitchen, containers used to store raw beef filled with dirty water and more. 

"The large number of violations indicate that food safety is at risk, as they are cited throughout the facility and relate to most aspects of food preparation and service," the inspection note states.

After the health department's visit, the Jenison Wendy's "voluntarily shut down due to illness complaints and potential outbreak" of E. coli infections, the lawsuit says. Less than a week later, it reopened under new management, a day after Aspen had to have her body iced to reduce a sky-high fever.

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