ST. LOUIS — A federal jury on Thursday awarded $80,000 in damages to Steak 'n Shake over a former employee's social media post claiming she found worms in a hamburger at the restaurant in Florissant, Missouri.
The jury awarded the company $70,000 in actual damages and $10,000 in punitive damages against Melissa White following a three-day trial.
Lawyers on for the restaurant chain couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
In a court filing before the trial, lawyers for the company said White was mistaken when she believed she found worms in a burger that she was preparing for herself on Jan. 5, 2018. What she actually saw was fat that rose to the surface of the patty when White applied pressure to it, according to the filing.
A district manager investigated and found no evidence of worms in patties that he inspected. White was uncooperative, triggering a call to Florissant police and a request that she leave the store, the filing said. Within an hour she'd posted her "defamatory" claims to Facebook, accompanied by pictures, the filing said. The post was shared at least 36,654 times and “liked” by at least 7,400 other people, some of whom vowed to never eat at Steak 'n Shake again, the filing said.
The company sued White later in 2018. The suit said White deleted a Facebook comment with the health inspector's report that said there were no problems with the meat and a picture that showed fat, not worms, on a patty.
White's lawyer, Samuel Henderson, called the verdict "very disappointing.”
Henderson told the Post-Dispatch on Friday that jurors heard from an entomologist who had examined the patty, which White had kept frozen, and found three fly larvae.
The company, Henderson said, focused on the fact that she hadn't turned over the patty right away and claimed she wrote the Facebook post because she was fired.
“From her standpoint, she was trying to do the right thing to protect the public," Henderson said, saying White warned customers and took other patties off the grill.
He said the verdict could force White into bankruptcy.
Robert Patrick • 314-340-8131
@rxpatrick on Twitter