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Cracker Barrel served a cleaning agent to a customer. A jury ordered it to pay $9.3 million.

A Cracker Barrel restaurant in Sterling, Va. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post).
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William Cronnon had just finished his lunch at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Tennessee in April 2014 when his waitress asked him if she could refill his water glass one more time. When she returned, the Alabama native took two or three big swigs.

But when Cronnon felt a burning sensation in his mouth and esophagus and struggled to breathe, he realized he wasn’t drinking water at all. Instead, Cronnon was served the chemical Eco-San, a cleaning agent used in the kitchen, that has since caused him years of gastrointestinal issues, according to court documents.

Now, almost eight years later, Cracker Barrel has been ordered by a jury to pay Cronnon more than $9.3 million for serving him a glass filled with a cleaning chemical. A jury for the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Marion County, Tenn., ruled Jan. 6 that the company must award Cronnon more than $4.3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages for the 2014 incident.

The size of Cronnon’s award could be capped because of a Tennessee law that limits noneconomic damages to $750,000, despite his extensive health problems.

“Cracker Barrel treated this guy like a dog,” Thomas Greer, Cronnon’s attorney, told The Washington Post. “The people in that store knew exactly what they served him. There is a sense of relief knowing that the jury believed him.”

Cronnon, 68, declined an interview request, Greer said.

Cracker Barrel told The Post in a statement that the company was “disappointed” in the Tennessee jury’s decision.

“While we have great respect for the legal process, we are obviously disappointed by and strongly disagree with the jury’s award in this case, which involved an unfortunate and isolated incident that occurred at one of our stores eight years ago,” the company’s media relations office said. “Although we are considering our options with respect to this verdict, we are glad this matter is behind us so we can better focus on caring for our guests and employees around the country.”

Greer, who said he expects Cracker Barrel to appeal the ruling, described the company’s statement to the media as “hypocrisy.”

“It would be laughable to me if it was not such a serious issue,” Greer said.

It all started on April 25, 2014, when Cronnon made a short trip over the Tennessee border from his work in Bridgeport, Ala., to the Cracker Barrel about 30 miles west of Chattanooga, Greer said. Cronnon said he felt something was wrong after a couple sips of what he assumed was ice water, according to the complaint. The chemical was poured into his glass from an unmarked container, Greer said.

In addition to the burning sensation he felt after drinking the chemical, Cronnon struggled to breathe and could not stop coughing, his attorney said.

Eco-San is a “food contact surface sanitizer and destainer for use in low-temperature warewashing machines,” according to its website. Ecolab, the company that makes Eco-San, specifies that the product contains “a high concentration of chlorinating agent.”

In the years that followed the incident, Greer said Cronnon suffered “severe permanent injuries,” such as “regular cramping, bloating diarrhea, and reflux pain after meals.” Cronnon, a factory worker for about 50 years, was also forced to stop working at his job because of the Cracker Barrel incident, saying he “lost wages and future earning capacity,” according to court records.

Even though the initial lawsuit was filed in 2015, delays in the legal system, and those forced by the coronavirus pandemic, impeded the case until this month, Greer said. The attorney took over the case from his father, Cronnon’s original lawyer, who died in 2019.

While Cracker Barrel had “good and written policies saying don’t put unmarked chemicals in unmarked containers,” the Marion County location was not training its employees consistent with those rules, Greer said. At this month’s trial, the attorney said three former employees testified how Cracker Barrel’s training was not up to par with its companywide policies.

“This was an ongoing, unsafe practice,” Greer said.

Cracker Barrel disputed that the 2014 incident was part of a larger, systemic issue at the chain restaurant.

“Our policy has been, and continues to be, to never put chemicals in any unmarked containers,” the company told The Post. “Again, this is an unfortunate and isolated incident that occurred at one of our stores eight years ago.”

Yet it took just 2½ days for the jury to side with Cronnon over Cracker Barrel.

“We the jury find [the] plaintiff is entitled to punitive damages in the amount of $5 million,” the presiding juror wrote in the jury verdict form.

But the millions awarded to Cronnon could be reduced significantly. As part of the Tennessee Civil Justice Act in 2011, the state limited noneconomic damages in a personal injury action to $750,000. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the state cap in 2020.

Court records show that $3.6 million of the $4.3 million awarded to Cronnon in compensatory damages are classified as noneconomic damages.

While Greer said he’s disappointed in the cap from the state law, he emphasized how the $5 million awarded in punitive damages to Cronnon was “very rare,” noting a figure that high is “reserved for the most egregious conduct.” The attorney said he and Cronnon hope that the jury’s ruling against Cracker Barrel will be a wake-up call for other restaurants that might not clearly label their chemicals in the kitchen.

“We hope people see this and realize that they need to change their ways,” he said.

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