Ky. court upholds $6M verdict in strip search case

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 4:30 PM

A Kentucky appeals court upheld a $6.1 million award to a former fast food worker who was forced to strip in a McDonald's restaurant office after someone called posing as a police officer.

The appellate court on Friday ruled that Illinois-based McDonald's Corp., knew about a series of hoax calls to restaurants around the country, but didn't warn employees before Louise Ogborn was strip searched and sexually assaulted as the result of such a call in 2004.

The appeals court ruled that to reverse the verdict would cut against the weight of the evidence.

Ogborn was 18 at the time of the call to the store about 20 miles south of Louisville. A Kentucky man, Walter Nix Jr., the fiance of a McDonald's assistant manager, served a prison sentence for sexually abusing Ogborn during the call. A Florida man, David Stewart, was acquitted of making the hoax call. Police have said similar calls stopped after Stewart's arrest.

McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud said the company doesn't dispute what happened to Ogborn, but is disappointed with the decision of the appeals court.

"However, it has been our position throughout these proceedings that she was the victim of a malicious hoax perpetrated by individuals not representing McDonald's," Proud said.

Ogborn's attorney, Ann Oldfather, told The Associated Press that the ruling affirms Ogborn's position that McDonald's should have warned employees after more than 40 other restaurants received hoax calls.

"I don't think all of this is ever going to go away," Oldfather said. "But, she's a solid, solid gal. She felt validated by the decision."

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse. Ogborn's name, however, has appeared in previous newspaper and broadcast stories with her permission.

The unanimous three-judge appeals panel ruled that Ogborn was unlawfully held against her will for the duration of the 3 1/2 hour call.

"She was deprived of her clothes and all her other possessions," Judge Glenn Acree wrote. "And Ogborn did not only face the false assertion of police authority, she also faced the real authority of her supervisors."

A jury awarded Ogborn $5 million in punitive damages and just over $1.1 million in compensatory damages following a four-week trial in 2007. Ogborn sought $200 million from the restaurant chain.

The same jury awarded $1.1 million to Donna Summers, a former McDonald's assistant store manager who also sued the fast-food chain. Summers, who had asked the jury to award her $50 million, led the strip search of Ogborn at the direction of the hoax caller. Summers was fired and claimed she was traumatized. She underwent counseling after the incident.

The appeals court knocked down the award to Summers to $400,000, saying the amount granted by the jury was unconstitutionally high. Summers, who was engaged to Nix at the time of the assault, was placed on probation for a misdemeanor conviction related to the incident.

McDonald's attorneys argued the company was not responsible for the incident. Ogborn accused the company of negligence leading up to the strip search, saying it did not act to warn employees of a rash of similar hoax calls to fast-food restaurants.

In the lawsuit, Ogborn said someone called the restaurant in Mount Washington impersonating a police officer and gave a description of a young, female employee, accusing her of stealing from a customer. The caller instructed an employee to strip search the woman, according to testimony.

Ogborn was forced to undress, endure a strip search, and to perform sexual acts, the lawsuit said. The events were captured on surveillance video, which was shown to jurors during the trial.