Lawsuit: Employee rift led to KC store selling laxative-tainted Coke

It may have been a not-so-innocent employee prank gone wrong that sickened a Kansas City woman.

Barbara J. Nelson isn’t laughing.

This week, she filed a lawsuit alleging that she became ill after drinking most of a bottle of laxative-laced Coca-Cola she bought Sept. 10 at the Family Dollar store at 3156 Troost Ave.

Police reports on the case, which officers initially classified as an aggravated assault, suggested that the incident stemmed from an attempt by an assistant store manager to “prank” another employee. The worker purportedly had a “notorious” reputation for stealing food from an employee refrigerator.

The assistant manager allegedly confessed to officers that he put 25 laxative tablets into each of two plastic bottles of Coca-Cola and resealed the caps with glue to hide any tampering. The assistant manager then allegedly put the bottles into an employee refrigerator at the rear of the store, “with the intention that (the other employee) would take and drink both of the Cokes, even though they were not his drinks,” according to a police report.

That employee, however, noticed the tablets. Instead of merely discarding the bottles, a police report states, he allegedly moved them to a cooler at the front of the store intended for customers.

Video surveillance confirmed that Nelson, 54, purchased one of the Cokes just after 3 p.m. that day, the police report states.

After consuming part of the cola, Nelson noticed undissolved pills in the drink and returned to the store. Nelson said she then became ill at the store and an ambulance took her to a hospital for treatment.

Nelson alleged in the suit that she suffered “violent consequences” and “severe mental and physical injuries” after drinking the Coke.

“I had a panic attack,” she said. “It was close to 9/11 and I didn’t know what was in that bottle.”

Nelson’s lawyer, Chuck Chionuma, said his client suffered from pre-existing medical conditions, including acid reflux, made worse by the laxative episode.

After she left the hospital, where she was treated with intravenous fluids for dehydration and cramps, Nelson said the company contacted her.

“They called me and told me they would give me a $200 gift card,” Nelson said. “It was like we were playing ‘The Price is Right’ or something.”

Both the manager and the employee involved in the incident made statements to police and were arrested, according to police records. No criminal charges have been filed against either of them, although a police spokesman said Wednesday they remain under investigation.

Bryn Winburn, a corporate spokeswoman for Family Dollar Stores Inc., said that because of the litigation the company could not comment on the incident or the lawsuit.

“Please know we take the safety of our customers and team members very seriously and we do not tolerate any actions that put their safety in jeopardy,” Winburn said in a written statement.

Officers recovered the remaining tampered soft-drink bottle from the customer cooler and sent it to the department’s crime lab for analysis of the tablets.

The Jackson County civil lawsuit, which seeks actual damages “in excess of $25,000,” alleges negligence and negligent supervision, training, hiring and retention.

Chionuma said he also plans to seek punitive damages, something in the “six figures.”

“You have to be responsible for what your employees have done,” Nelson said.