A McDonald’s franchisee in Pittsburgh who declared bankruptcy a year ago must pay $4.35 million to settle the case of a teenage employee who was raped by a former manager in the bathroom of one of its restaurants.
Rice Enterprises, which had been in business since 1987, will use the proceeds from the sale of its stores to fund the settlement, according to a statement Monday from Swensen and Perer, the law firm representing the minor, identified as L.H. in court documents.
Then 14 years old, L.H. had recently started her job at McDonald’s in 2021 when she was raped by her manager, Walter Garner, a registered sex offender, according to court documents. Garner pled guilty to statutory sexual assault and indecent assault, among other charges, and remains incarcerated. Garner’s record included a 2003 conviction for indecent assault involving a 10-year-old girl.
“As soon as we were made aware of the complaint against Garner in 2021, we terminated his employment and offered our full support to the impacted employees and law enforcement investigating this case," Rice Enterprises said in a statement Monday. "Since then, we’ve redoubled our efforts to ensure a positive and respectful experience for all employees in our restaurants, and our organization maintains a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind.”
Rice Enterprises had previously denied the allegations. McDonald’s, which was also sued, unsuccessfully fought to have claims against it dismissed, alleging that it was not involved in Garner’s hiring.
“How does a known sex offender get hired and be permitted to manage underage girls between 14 and 17 years of age?” Alan Perer, attorney for the teen, said in a statement. “For a company to allow a known sex offender to have access to and control over young teens turns America’s best first job into a nightmare for those teens.”
The franchisee said all of its employees undergo "safe and respectful workplace training" when they are hired and that it has expanded its training and in-restaurant security.
McDonald's corporate is not a signatory of the settlement and was released from any legal claims in the matter, the company said.
"The events that took place in this case are deeply troubling," McDonald's USA said in a statement. "Everyone working under the Arches deserves to feel safe and respected when they come to work, and sexual harassment or violence of any kind is completely unacceptable. We're committed to providing franchisees with the resources they need to create a safe working environment in their restaurants—including training around harassment prevention as part of McDonald's Global Brand Standards."
Attorneys for L.H. said they were confident a jury would ultimately find both Rice Enterprises and McDonald’s corporate liable for the sexual assault, but they deemed a settlement in her best interest “so she would not have to endure the additional stress and trauma of a trial.”
In its bankruptcy filing last year, Rice Enterprises said it sought to preserve its assets and restructure its debt to “provide breathing space, time to reduce litigation expenses and maximize the value of its estate for all creditors and interests.”
This story has been updated to include statements from Rice Enterprises and McDonald's USA.
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