No charges filed after woman drank tea laced with lye

SALT LAKE CITY — No charges will be filed in the case of a customer who nearly died after unknowingly drinking iced tea mixed with chemicals at a suburban Salt Lake City restaurant, prosecutors said Friday.

But Dickey’s Barbecue isn’t off the hook just yet: Jan Harding and her family will enter into mediation with the restaurant later this year to try to reach a monetary agreement, her attorney said. If that doesn’t work, they’ll file a lawsuit.

Harding and her family accept the decision by Salt Lake County Attorney Sim Gill and are glad the investigation is complete, their lawyer Paxton Guymon said.

“I agree that there was no intent to injure, but the level of recklessness on a number of fronts was so egregious that it was a train wreck waiting to happen,” Guymon said. “Somebody was going to get hurt. … There was very poor management, poor training. There were a lot of things that could have been differently to prevent this from happening.”

The Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc. didn’t immediately have any comment. The company earlier said the incident was isolated and unprecedented in the chain’s 73-year history.

Authorities have said an employee at Dickey’s Barbecue in South Jordan unintentionally put the heavy-duty cleaner lye in a sugar bag, and another worker on Aug. 10 mistakenly mixed it into an iced-tea dispenser.

Later that day, Harding took a single sip of the sweetened iced tea while out to eat with her husband, and suffered deep, ulcerated burns to her esophagus. She was hospitalized in critical condition.

Lye, an odorless chemical that looks like sugar, is used for degreasing deep fryers and is the active ingredient in Drano.

Harding, 67, spent nearly two weeks in a Salt Lake City hospital. She has been out of the hospital for weeks but still hasn’t regained her sense of taste, her lawyer said.

She continues to see doctors about the damage to her esophagus. She also still suffers some emotional distress.

“It’s been challenging for her to go out and eat,” Guymon said. “There’s still some lingering anxiety.”

Gill said Friday that after an extensive police investigation, prosecutors determined there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

They analyzed more than 700 hours of video from inside the restaurant, along with interviews with several current and former employees and business partners, he said. They also reviewed another lye incident at the restaurant in July, when a worker burned herself when she stuck her finger into a sugar container and licked it to test for the chemical cleaner.

“There were certainly errors or mishaps that occurred, but none of that rose to the level of what we were charged to do: Look for criminal charges,” Gill said.

Harding’s family is tentatively scheduled to meet with Dickey’s Barbecue representatives in November to see if they can reach a monetary agreement, Guymon said. They also want the chain to change how its restaurants handle dangerous substances to ensure nothing like this happens again, he said.

Harding and her Baptist minister husband, Jim Harding, declined to comment Friday. They previously said they were not angry with anyone at Dickey’s and decided to share their story in hopes that other restaurants will take measures to prevent something similar from happening, perhaps by adding colored dye to chemicals.

“My clients are really adamant that this is about more than money,” Guymon said. “That’s why the mediation approach is the right one to try at this point. If you go to court, you can’t necessarily force them to adopt some new policy.”

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