A McDonald’s franchisee has agreed to pay $4.4 million to settle a lawsuit from a teenage girl who said she was sexually assaulted in the Pennsylvania-based restaurant’s bathroom by her manager, a registered sex offender.
The unidentified girl was 14 years old at the time of the 2021 attack, which happened just four months after she was hired at the McDonald’s location in Bethel Park.
In January 2021, Walter A. Garner, now 44 — a lifetime registered sex offender in Pennsylvania who had already served prison time for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl in 2003 — became the victim’s manager.
According to the lawsuit, which was earlier reported on by local news site TribLIVE, Garner began sexually harassing the girl almost immediately after becoming her boss, using sexual innuendos, including telling her that he wanted her “to be his happy meal.”
Garner then touched the girl inappropriately, the complaint said, which continued despite the young girl asking him to stop, causing “severe emotional distress and anxiety,” per TribLIVE.
In February 2021, Garner followed the girl into the bathroom and forced himself onto her.
The lawsuit said that the girl and two others who worked at the Rice Enterprises-owned McDonald’s location told the hiring manager what happened.
The court documents also note that the victim was never given information related to human resources during her orientation, which was led by a 17-year-old girl and consisted of watching tutorials on how to hand food out to drive-thru customers, according to TribLIVE.
Rice Enterprises confirmed to The Post that the franchisee — which owns eight of Golden Arches restaurants across the Pittsburgh area — fired Garner after learning of the complaint and “offered our full support to the impacted employees.”
Garner has since pleaded guilty to statutory sexual assault and other offenses after prosecutors withdrew a rape charge. He was sentenced in October 2021 to up to 10 years in prison, TribLIVE reported.
Rice Enterprises added in a statement to The Post: “Since then, we’ve redoubled our efforts to ensure a positive and respectful experience for all employees in our restaurants.”
The firm also noted that McDonald’s corporation is not involved in the case, and shifted blame to “a third-party vendor to conduct a full background check on Garner and the report did not show any previous arrests or issues. “
“We have sued that vendor to redress the harm that their error caused the plaintiff, our business, and our reputation,” Rice Enterprises’ spokesperson added.
Rice Enterprises sued that vendor, Backgroundchecks.com LLC, in May 2023. It uses the online company it uses to perform criminal background checks on candidates ahead of hiring them.
The franchisee claims that when it paid to run Garner’s name on Backgroundchecks.com in July 2018, the site — which claims to be the “#1 online criminal conviction database in the industry based on an analysis of publicly available sources” — “did not indicate that Garner’s name was on the Pennsylvania Sex Offender Registry,” per court documents obtained by TribLIVE.
“Importantly, the report showed that Garner had never been charged and/or convicted of a criminal offense in any of the 50 states,” the complaint added.
Rice Enterprises’ lawsuit alleges breach of contract, fraud and negligent misrepresentation, according to TribLIVE.
Backgroundchecks.com did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.
The franchisee is also seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and is selling off its portfolio of restaurants to finance its $4.4 million settlement, TribLIVE reported.
Lawyer Alan Perer, who represents the unidentified victim, said in a press release shared with The Post: “For a company to allow a known sex offender to have access to and control over young teens turns America’s best first job into a nightmare for those teens.”
Rice Enterprises did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment.
Meanwhile, the franchisee is facing a similar lawsuit from a second teenage girl claiming that she was also sexually harassed by Garner while working at a Rice Enterprises-owned McDonalds in November 2020.
“How does a known sex offender get hired and be permitted to manage underage girls between 14 and 17 years of age?” Perer questioned.
In the complaint, the plaintiff called Garner “rude, domineering and hostile,” and said that at one point he even showed her child pornography, according to TribLIVE.
She is suing both McDonald’s and Rice Enterprises in federal court in Pittsburgh, alleging a hostile work environment and negligent hiring practices.