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A New York man is suing McDonald’s after a stray slice of American cheese on his Big Mac allegedly sent him into acute anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening condition that can turn deadly within minutes.
The sandwich had Charles Olsen, a twentysomething music producer who is severely allergic to dairy products, on the brink of respiratory failure, according to his legal team and a lawsuit filed Friday in New York State Supreme Court.
“We’re just so grateful that Mr. Olsen is still with us,” Olsen’s attorney Jory Lange told The Daily Beast, adding that he and co-counsel Scott Harford are working with several families who have lost loved ones to hidden food allergens.
The McDonald’s Corporation and The Colley Group, the family business that owns the McDonald’s franchise in question, did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast. Both are named as defendants in the suit.
The Colley Group’s polo-playing COO, Bruce Colley, made headlines two decades ago when he was blamed for breaking up future New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s marriage to Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the seventh of Robert F. Kennedy’s 11 children. He and the closely held company were back in the news a few years later, when workers at a Colley McDonald’s in Washington Heights walked off the job and demanded air conditioning following the hospitalization of a colleague who fainted in the sweltering kitchen during a heat wave. The family was once again the subject of intense local interest in 2015, when family matriarch Lois Colley was fatally bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher by a disgruntled employee. The Colleys are “one of the largest private owners of restaurants in the United States,” according to an April 2023 press release regarding one of Bruce Colley’s overseas development projects.
A review of court records shows The Colley Group, which owns hundreds of McDonald’s franchises, has faced numerous other lawsuits over incidents that have occurred there. Patrons claim they have been assaulted by employees, attacked by teenage mobs, racially profiled, and, in one instance, pummeled in the face by a crew member during a dispute over the size of his coffee. However, few, if any, have been food poisoning cases.
Olsen’s claims trace back to the early-morning hours of Feb. 21, 2021, when he and his girlfriend, identified in the lawsuit as “Alexandra,” logged into DoorDash and ordered a post-midnight snack from a nearby McDonald’s in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
For her, a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal and a chocolate milk. Olsen requested his usual: a Big Mac Meal, no cheese, and a Sprite.
When the food arrived, Olsen opened his burger and began to eat, according to the lawsuit.
“After a few bites, he immediately felt like something wasn’t right,” it states. “His throat began to itch and swell. He felt a burning sensation throughout his body. He looked at his girlfriend, Alexandra, and coughed, ‘There’s milk in this!’”
Almost immediately, Olsen’s entire body “was covered in hives,” the lawsuit goes on. “His breathing became heavy and congested. His whole body felt feverish. He developed a persistent cough, followed by wheezing. He also began gasping for air. He choked out his words to Alexandra that he needed medical help right away.”
As anaphylaxis set in, Alexandra rushed Olsen to the hospital, according to the lawsuit. By this point, he “was hypoxic and on the brink of needing intubation to save his life,” the suit says. “All the while, his throat was continuing to swell and close.”
Things got “really, really bad,” Lange told The Daily Beast. And right when doctors were ready to hook Olsen up to a ventilator, “the medicine started to kick in, and he started to be able to breathe,” he said.
After several hours, ER staff were able to stabilize Olsen and later released him, according to the lawsuit.
Lange, who specializes in food poisoning cases, said Olsen has recovered physically from the “terrifying” ordeal.
“But emotionally, this was a pretty traumatic thing,” he said. “I know it was a really scary event for him, and that those emotional scars, unfortunately, are lasting.”
One step toward a solution, according to Harford would be for McDonald’s and other chains to let online customers indicate in their orders that they have an actual allergy to a specific ingredient, rather than simply providing an option to request that an ingredient be left off their sandwich.
“The problem is, this is all completely avoidable,” Lange said. “With the rising number of people who suffer from really serious food allergies, like Mr. Olson, it’s really, really important for restaurants, that whenever a customer tells you, ‘Hey, don’t include this particular ingredient in my order,’ that they honor it. Especially if it’s something like milk or cheese, which is one of the nine most common food allergens that leads to people having anaphylaxis and ending up in the emergency room.”
Because of the “contaminated food products” Olsen unwittingly ate, his lawsuit says he “incurred substantial medical expenses, and endured great physical pain, discomfort, mental anguish, and suffering.” He is asking for damages in an amount to be determined by a jury, plus legal fees.
In Lange’s experience, he said, some restaurant chains are willing to meet him halfway in situations like this, “and do what they can to make it right.” Others, according to Lange, “will just fight and fight and fight.”
“Our job is just to keep fighting until they admit they did something wrong, and [then] try to fix it,” Lange said. “And obviously, get compensation for Mr. Olsen. But also to hold the restaurants accountable, so that they will be safer for the next person, so that this won’t happen to someone else again.”