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Marcus Long nearly died three times last year. After a routine procedure on his bladder, doctors diagnosed the 61-year-old with cancer of the brain, colon, lung and spine. He survived brain and back radiation treatment and chemotherapy -- but he barely survived a McDonald's breakfast burrito, says his wife, Elaine Long.
So the Longs have joined a long line of lawsuits against the Golden Arches. There's the famous my-coffee-was-too-hot case, and the woman who sued because a pickle fell out of her hamburger and scalded her chin, and the kids who sued because they got fat after eating at McDonald's almost every day.
Marcus and Elaine are alleging that a McBurrito was so oversaturated with black pepper that it caused Marcus to have two months of daily nosebleeds, an infection in his mouth and possible damage to his vocal chords.
A pipe fitter, Marcus was forced into early retirement in 1995 after asbestosis brought on severe breathing problems. He's on an oxygen tank and nearly died from health complications in July, so the couple moved from their lake house in East Texas into the Bacliff duplex of Elaine's brother to be closer to the Clear Lake oncologists who treat Marcus.
"I was too scared to be more than 20 minutes from his doctors," Elaine says.
His radiation and chemotherapy treatments made his mouth sensitive and sore, so he stopped wearing his dentures. Almost every morning for the past year his wife bought him two pints of milk and three McDonald's sausage, egg and cheese breakfast burritos -- he could gum the soft, processed dairy product.
On November 18, Elaine handed him his breakfast as he watched the Food Network. She took a call from the television repairman and then heard Marcus coughing and choking.
She says she asked him what was the matter; he opened his mouth and it was filled with black pepper. He sneezed and pepper flakes came out of his nose, Elaine says.
"I looked inside the burritos and they were just black; you couldn't hardly see the egg," Elaine says. Marcus hasn't eaten black pepper in nearly seven years because it irritates his diverticulitis, a digestive disorder. Elaine's brother Garry Abshier, a registered nurse and the nurse care coordinator at Galveston Shriners Hospital for Children, told Elaine to flush the inside of Marcus's nose with a saline solution. Elaine and Garry say Marcus continued to bleed from the throat and nose because of irritation from the pepper. "That might not hurt me or you, but with him -- it's like giving it to a baby," Garry says.
Outraged, Elaine says she took the blackened burritos back to the McDonald's on Highway 146 in Bacliff. She says the manager told her there had been problems with the burritos that morning and she had stopped serving them -- Elaine says the manager told her they had decided to spice up the bland burritos with a little pepper.
"You can't mess with people's food," Elaine says. "What if somebody would've handed one of those to a five-year-old in the backseat?" She says the manager did not care that her sick husband was suddenly sicker, did not apologize and did not offer her a free Happy Meal or her money back.
"The lady wasn't apologetic or anything," Garry says. "She was downright hateful."
Elaine later checked the McDonald's Web site, which states that it does not add salt and pepper to its food. "The area manager told me that a year from now I wouldn't even remember this. I'll remember it," Elaine says. "They definitely hurt him. And they definitely didn't care."
She says her husband's nose bled for two days -- she saved the paper towels filled with blood and black pepper. His nose still bleeds daily, she says. "It burned him all inside," she says. On Christmas Eve he was hospitalized and given two pints of packed red blood cells. "Every drop of blood he's got, he needs very badly to survive," she says.
Attorney Leonard Cruse filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Longs in Galveston County Court. It accuses McDonald's of breaching an implied warranty that its food was wholesome when "in fact it was unfit for human consumption." The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional stress.
"The man was seriously injured by the burrito supersaturated with black pepper. He's been downhill ever since," Cruse says.
However, the Long suit may be a long shot in the courts.
Leslie Botnick, a Los Angeles radiation oncologist, acknowledged that pepper is an irritant and bleeding may occur if people cough or choke after swallowing food the wrong way.
Botnick, who emphasizes he is speaking generally and has no knowledge of the Bacliff case, says, "Your throat may be raspy, your throat may be sore, but it goes away." Botnick explains that when cancer patients bleed, it's usually because of a bleeding tumor -- not the result of a bad burrito.
"Black pepper is a onetime event. If it irritated him, he spit it out. It's not gonna be there on a daily basis. I'm sure he's not snorting it daily," Botnick says. "If you buy a burrito, it's sometimes gonna be hot. That's what burritos do. Pepper does not promote cancer."
The allegations are denied by Don Clark, president of Double Arches Corporation, the area McDonald's franchise that is a defendant in the suit. "After a thorough investigation, I have no reason to believe this claim has anything to do with my restaurant or my employees," he said in a faxed statement to the Houston Press. Clark notes that Long was the only customer who complained. "I believe this claim is without merit. Food safety and the safe operations of my restaurant are among my highest priorities."
Jon Opelt, executive director of Houston Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, called the lawsuit "bizarre and overreaching."
"Junk lawsuits are nothing to sneeze about -- they waste the courts' time and taxpayers' money," Opelt says. "It's unfortunate that some people would pepper the courts with petty grievances while those with legitimate injuries must wait."
Garry says his sister tried to deal with the restaurant first but was refused. Cruse believes their case is not like other lawsuits that have gained attention -- it's totally different factually from the fat kids suing McDonald's for their weight gain, he says. "I don't have any sympathy for those folks," Cruse says.
The attorney says he is still seeking information about how the pepper wound up in the burrito. Meanwhile, Marcus's mouth infection hasn't cleared up, and his health has steadily declined, Cruse says.
Instead of gumming egg burritos, Marcus now drinks 20 ounces of milk mixed with three packets of Carnation Instant Breakfast. He consumes what he can, while watching the Food Network's Iron Chef. "He's just not eating now," Garry says.
"She has to fight every day to keep him alive," Garry says of his sister. "Then something like this happens."
"I've had him 20-something years," Elaine says. "I don't want to lose him."