SALT LAKE CITY — The attorney for a woman who nearly died after unknowingly drinking tea laced with a chemical cleaning compound at a Utah restaurant said Thursday an employee at the eatery burned herself a month earlier on the same substance.
Family lawyer Paxton Guymon’s comments came at a news conference that was attended by the burned woman’s husband, who said she is recovering but experiencing nightmares.
Guymon said he learned about the previous burn during his investigation into what led to the tea incident at Dickey’s Barbecue in South Jordan, a Salt Lake City suburb.
He said the Dickey’s employee burned her tongue July 5 after she stuck her finger in a sugar container to test if it had any of the chemical cleaner. She then licked her finger.
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The worker’s tongue started bleeding and blisters formed, Guymon said. She is not back to normal. “To me it means that … things should have and could have been done to prevent my client, Mrs. Harding, from being injured,” Guymon said.
The employee quit Aug. 9, the day before Jan Harding, 67, of Sandy, Utah, took a sip of the sweetened iced tea and suffered deep burns in her upper esophagus, Guymon said.
Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants said last week that nothing like what happened to Harding had occurred in the 73 years the Dallas-based chain has operated. The company did not comment on the new claim.
The chemical first got in the container when a different employee trying to top off the sugar bucket poured in the cleaning product, thinking it was sugar. The product looks like sugar but is meant for degreasing deep fryers and contains the odorless chemical lye, a key component in many drain cleaners.
On Aug. 10, a restaurant employee put six scoops from the container of tainted sugar into the iced-tea dispenser, Guymon said. Jan Harding poured her drink from the dispenser later that day.
Salt Lake County prosecutors are reviewing the findings of a police investigation.
Harding’s husband, Jim, said he is not upset or seeking vengeance for what happened. The 66-year-old retired Baptist pastor said he feels sad for everyone involved and is focused solely on his wife’s recovery, not criminal charges or lawsuits.
His wife has been improving this week. She is speaking, walking around a bit and trying to drink liquids to test her burned throat, Jim Harding said.
Doctors haven’t yet determined if the retired kindergarten teacher will have long-term health problems or when she’ll be allowed to go home, he said.