September 07, 2011, A Metairie woman who found a small slice of a cook's fingertip in her salad seven years ago has failed to convince a Jefferson Parish jury that she deserves compensation for the psychological harm she says she has endured. Mary Deal Chambers-Johnson, 54, claims she has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological disorders since June 25, 2004, when she found the piece of skin with a sliver of fingernail attached to it in the chicken salad she purchased for lunch from the Applebee's on Clearview Parkway in Elmwood.
"I was upset, totally distraught," Chambers-Johnson testified during a civil trial in 24th Judicial District Judge Lee Faulkner's court last week. "I feel like that's nothing you find in your food."
She sued a year later, seeking more than $89,000 in damages, including about $17,000 in doctors' bills. But the jury deliberated about three hours Friday in finding that Southern River Restaurants, which owns the Applebee's franchise, and two of its managers were not negligent. As such, the jury found that Chambers-Johnson was not entitled to a monetary award.
According to court filings, a cook, Anthony Walker, was preparing Chambers-Johnson's salad when the knife "slipped," and he cut off the tip of his finger. As Walker tended to his injury, another cook stepped in, cleaned the work station and continued with Johnson's order. The flesh and fingernail somehow got past the second cook.
Chambers-Johnson, who ordered the salad to go, said she nibbled on a piece of chicken as she drove back to her workplace. There, she found the skin and fingernail with some blood. Her attorney, Michael Darnell, kept the fingertip in a freezer, but the jury only saw photographs of it.
David Groome, attorney for the restaurant, called it an unfortunate accident that brought unwanted publicity to the company. He accused Chambers-Johnson of ignoring the company's attempts to rectify the matter and of "running into court to collect a quick check."
A floor manager apologized to her in responding to her complaint by phone that day, and he referred the matter to a district manager. Groome said Chambers-Johnson threatened to sue, and she never returned the district manager's call.
She acknowledged meeting with Darnell hours after finding the fingertip, "because I wanted some advice." But she also signed a waiver that day, authorizing Darnell to access her medical records, evidence showed.
She acknowledged that while she was afraid of developing HIV or another disease, she never actively sought blood tests.
Darnell had to contend with jurors' views on whether the lawsuit was frivolous. Several people said during jury selection they thought it was.
Chambers-Johnson, sitting in the audience, shook her head in disagreement. Darnell dismissed the frivolity notion, saying his client was "surprised, shocked, disgusted" by what she found and has suffered a range of psychological ailments, from phobias related to eating out to a diminished sex life with her husband.
"Maybe most people don't respond this way, but she responds this way," Darnell argued.