Michigan family claims 11-year-old became severely ill after eating Wendy’s: lawsuit

GEORGETOWN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The family of an 11-year-old Michigan girl is suing a Wendy's franchise owner for $20 million, alleging the child became severely ill after eating a meal from the fast-food restaurant.

Aspen Lamfers’ parents told Nexstar's WOOD that she was perfectly healthy, excelled at several sports and thrived in the classroom before a visit to a Wendy’s in Jenison changed everything.

“It’s almost a miracle she survived,” said the family’s attorney, Tom Worsfold.

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After her team’s softball practice in August 2022, the 11-year-old girl went to the restaurant and ordered a hamburger, chicken nuggets and fries. A few days later, her family said she had abdominal cramps, diarrhea and blood in her stool. She was hospitalized with an E. coli infection, which later turned into hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), attacking her kidneys.

Her family said she was admitted to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, but her condition only worsened.

Aspen Lamfers, 11, is pictured in the hospital. (Courtesy of Lamfers family)

“The infection continued to progress and attacked her pancreas and her brain,” Worsfold said. “She had significant brain swelling, suffering seizures while in the hospital. She had left-sided paralysis.”

Aspen was on constant dialysis for her kidney issues. Worsfold said she was unconscious at times and hallucinated.

“Her parents took a video of her crying out in the hospital asking, 'Why am I so sick?'" the family attorney said. "It's just so bad. That terror for an 11-year-old girl needs to be compensated.”

She was hospitalized at DeVos for three weeks before rehabbing at Mary Free Bed for a week. Aspen finally went home more than a month after her initial hospitalization.

“Her family is so thankful that they have her, that she didn't pass from this, because it was so close,” Worsfold said.

Worsfold said Aspen is still struggling with high blood pressure, weakness on the left side of her body, diabetes and brain damage, which has affected her ability to learn.

“The spring before she got sick, she placed as a fifth grader in sixth-grade level of reading,” Worsfold said. “One year later, after she got sick, as a sixth grader she was now reading at a fourth-grade level.”

This undated photo shows Aspen Lamfers. (Courtesy of Lamfers family)

The Lamfers are suing Meritage Hospitality Group, the company that owns more than 380 Wendy's, Taco John's, Morning Belle and Stan's Tacos locations across 16 states. Worsfold said the $20 million the family is asking for in damages accounts for an expected loss of lifetime earning potential because of her brain injury and cognitive impairments.

Meritage did not immediately respond to WOOD's request for comment.

Read whole lawsuit against Wendy's franchise owner

Aspen's family said they didn't know that the Wendy's location had temporarily shut down just days before the 11-year-old went there. During a safety check on July 27, 2022, Ottawa County food inspectors found what they called “gross, insanitary conditions throughout” the building.

“It was really disgusting to be quite frank,” Worsfold said.

According to health records, investigators found moldy and spoiled food, including day-old chili left out. They also found undated produce.

Dirty food slicing and cutting boards were kept out, and food was left on the ground overnight, according to the inspection report. Investigators also found mold and mildew throughout the restaurant and pooled water in multiple places.

The inspectors wrote that the “facility throughout is dirty at an excessive end of the spectrum.” They also reported seeing leaking water flowing over electrical areas.

“Imminent health hazards demand immediate corrections, such as closure and fixing health hazards observed,” inspectors added. “Immediate health risks may get the staff and public sick.”

The restaurant’s food license wasn’t posted either, investigators said.

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Health records show that the restaurant voluntarily closed in late July because of health risks, allowing staff to be retrained on food safety practices and for water leaks to be fixed. They reopened by August 1, the day Aspen ate at the restaurant.

But investigators said they found more violations just a few days later: potentially hazardous food was not stored and cooled properly, and there was standing water with dead pests around the chili area. Kitchen floors were also soiled with black mold-like debris, according to the report.

“Many of the same problem areas were present with employees not changing gloves, not washing their hands, one of the hand washing sinks wasn't stocked properly,” Worsfold said.

Health inspections show the restaurant has improved conditions since its temporary closure.

Earlier this month, several other West Michigan residents sued Meritage, saying they were sickened by contaminated lettuce at Wendy's restaurants during the E. coli outbreak in 2022. Worsfold said Aspen didn't eat any lettuce, but he believes she got sick through cross-contamination.

“It's really the only explanation that caused her to contract this infection,” Worsfold alleged.

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