11-year-old girl has permanent brain damage from meal at ‘dirty’ Wendy’s, lawsuit says

The family of an 11-year-old girl is suing after they said she fell critically ill from eating at a Wendy’s in Michigan.

On Aug. 1, 2022, 11-year-old Aspen Lamfers went to a Wendy’s in Jenison after softball practice and ate a “Biggie Bag” meal. The meal included a hamburger, chicken nuggets and french fries, according to an April 4 lawsuit filed by her family.

On Aug. 4, Aspen began to feel very sick, experiencing nausea, stomach pain, fever and diarrhea, the lawsuit said. Her symptoms got worse over the next few days, and after seeing she had blood in her stool Aug. 6, her mother took her to a hospital.

She was sent home after being treated, but by Aug. 7, she was back in the hospital feeling worse, the lawsuit said.

On Aug. 11, she was transferred to another hospital, eventually placed in the pediatric ICU and was put on dialysis, according to court documents.

Aspen was being treated for hemolytic uremic syndrome, a known and critical complication from STEC (Shiga toxin producing E. coli) infection, the lawsuit said. She was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney failure, according to the lawsuit.

She also suffered suddenly from neurological issues, such as facial drooping, weakness on the left side of her body and numbness, according to the lawsuit.

Aspen was considered to be “critically ill” and ultimately suffered from renal failure and permanent brain damage, according to the lawsuit.

“Aspen’s life has been forever changed because of this blatant disregard for the health and safety of the public,” the family attorney, Tom Worsfold, told McClatchy News in a statement.

At one point, Aspen became nonverbal, but not before asking a question, the lawsuit said.

“Why am I so sick? Why? And it’s so bad!” she said, according to the court document.

Aspen became paralyzed to an extent and had trouble drinking through a straw, according to the lawsuit. She developed high blood pressure, anemia, vision impairments and hallucinations due to brain swelling, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said Aspen had to undergo physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, nursing care, counseling, and medical supervision and management, including continued kidney dialysis.

On Sept. 9, she was discharged with permanent impairments, including hypertension, loss of strength, diabetes, seizure disorder and brain damage, according to the lawsuit.

“When Aspen took the State M-Step assessment in fifth grade in the spring of 2022, she scored in the 61st percentile for reading with a 6th grade reading level, and she scored in the 70th percentile for math,” the lawsuit said. “When Aspen took the State M-Step assessment after her STEC infection in the spring of 2023, she scored in the 26th percentile in reading with a 4th grade reading level, and she scored in the 9th percentile for math.”

Reports of a ‘dirty’ restaurant

McClatchy News reached out to Meritage Hospitality Group, Inc., which does business as Wendy’s, for comment April 16 but did not immediately hear back.

During a July 27 inspection of the Wendy’s location by the Ottawa County Health Department, results stated the restaurant had 17 health and food code violations. Inspectors found “moldy strawberries, spoiled tomatoes, and day-old chili that had been left out,” inspection reports included in the lawsuit show.

There was also water leaking throughout the building, expired food, food on the ground and dirty surfaces, the report said.

“Facility throughout is dirty at an excessive end of the spectrum. Mold and mildew noted throughout,” according to the report.

The restaurant was closed while staff worked to correct the issues. Then, on Aug. 8, the county health district recognized there was a connection with recent STEC infections and the Wendy’s location, the lawsuit said.

A follow-up inspection was done at the Wendy’s and investigators found several violations, according to the lawsuit.

“Employees were not changing their gloves after contamination occurred,” it said. “Observed some blood from the ground beef dripped across the clean surface/food storage area of the grill where food is not held (such as cooked burgers staying warm). Blood transferred via gloved hands to clean white spatula utilized for the cooked burgers that are then prepared/served without any further cooking.”

The inspection report said the violations indicated the food safety at the Wendy’s was at risk.

After the follow-up inspection, the business shut down again ”due to illness complaints and potential outbreak” of E. coli infections, the lawsuit said. It reopened Aug. 17 after changing management.

“Despite our best efforts, Meritage Hospitality Group has been unwilling or unable to engage in any effort to resolve Aspen’s claims without litigation,” Worsfold told McClatchy News.

The lawsuit is asking for a judgment in the amount of $20 million.

Jenison is about a 10-mile drive southwest from Grand Rapids.

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