An Arby’s manager “beat her hands bloody trying to escape or get someone’s attention” before she died locked inside a freezer at one of the fast-food chain’s restaurants in Louisiana, court records said.
The detail is contained in a lawsuit filed by family members of Nguyet Le, 63, against Arby’s and the owner of the store.
Le’s four adult children are demanding at least $1m in damages from the chain and the franchise owner, Turbo Restaurants, alleging they showed negligence by failing to fix a freezer door that was broken for about nine months.
Turbo Restaurants is a subsidiary of Sun Holdings, whose properties include hundreds of chain restaurants across the US, such as Arby’s, Burger King and Applebee’s. The lawsuit says Sun Holdings describes itself as the second-largest US organization of its kind.
In a statement, an Arby’s spokesperson said the brand was aware of Le’s death and the owner of the franchise store in New Iberia was “cooperating fully with local authorities as they conduct their investigation”.
Le’s children allege their mother was dropped off at the Arby’s on the morning of 11 May to help open the store for daily business. At some point she became trapped inside the walk-in freezer, which the company kept at a temperature of “-10F [-23C] if not colder”.
Later in the morning, Le’s son and co-worker, Nguyen, found her face down and in a fetal position.
Investigators found blood on the inside of the freezer door, leading them to conclude that Le cut her hands trying to get out or to draw the attention of those outside. An autopsy showed Le died when her body temperature fell to a fatal level.
In their lawsuit, Le’s children note that she worked as a general manager of an Arby’s in Houston. But in February her supervisor temporarily assigned her to manage the outlet in New Iberia, Louisiana, about three and a half hours away by car.
The assignment was supposed to last only four weeks but the supervisor added an additional two, according to the wrongful death lawsuit, which was filed on 25 May in a Texas state courthouse in Houston.
Citing information from a former Arby’s employee whose identity was withheld, Le’s children allege the latch to the door of the walk-in freezer had been broken since at least August last year. Employees were using a screwdriver to help open and close the door, the suit says, adding that workers also used an oil box to keep the door open.
Staff reported the broken door to local management as well as Le’s supervisor in Houston, the suit says. The former employee described personally showing the broken freezer door to the supervisor.
However, Arby’s “acted with conscious indifference in failing to repair the latch for nearly nine months”, the lawsuit contends.