An Augusta, GA baker is being sued by a former client after the client choked on a metal piece from the cake's decorations.
It’s a baker’s worst nightmare! Getting a call from a customer saying that something went wrong with the cake that you just delivered. On the list of heart pounding, anxiety building incidents are things like, the buttercream melting, the cake falling apart, someone dropping the cake, and even worse someone having an allergic reaction! But…I don’t think even the most professional and experienced baker could see this one coming.
According to The Augusta Chronicle, David Willis a Grovetown, GA resident “swallowed a sharp metal” object after taking a bite of his then 8 year old daughter's birthday cake.” The horrific incident unfolded at his daughter’s 8th birthday party in July of 2018. Willis goes on to explain that “hacking and others smacking his back helped dislodge the metal object to the point where he could breathe again” However, he was “still bleeding when the ambulance arrived and he was taken to the hospital.”
Unfortunately, this incident has resulted in Willis filing a lawsuit against a local August bakery, and he is “seeking compensatory and punitive damages.” Which basically, means he is looking for money to cover his actual injuries that resulted from him swallowing the metal piece and then extra money that serves as something of a punishment to the baker for their possible negligence and not taking better care to keep their customers safe.
I know this sounds harsh, but this is the reality we live in in the food service industry. Whether you realize it or not, when you decided to go into business there is a certain amount of risk that you take on by feeding other people and serving the general public. That is why we do our best to protect ourselves with contracts and with insurance.
How did this happen?
After looking at the pictures and reading the statement given to The Augusta Chronicle, it won’t take many bakers long to come up with a really possible scenario about how this all could have gone down.
The local baker who made the cake reportedly claims that she only uses “wood sticks and floral wire to hold up sculpted decorations,” and that she’s “never had anything like this happen before” in her “14 years of business.”
Unfortunately for the baker, it is totally possible that one of the metal pieces that Willis swallowed was from the floral wire that she mentions using as decoration in the cake. The good part is that she does go on to mention that she “label[led] the cake boxes with a warning.” However, the question is will a judge think that is enough to keep her from being found liable or at fault in this particular case. Honestly, only time will tell. I just hope she has a really good lawyer, and other evidence such as a contract to cover her butt (and business).
How can you protect yourself & your baking, sweets business?
I’ll start this section by saying that I don’t know this baker personally, and I haven’t heard her side of the story. All I know is what is being reported online by local sources in Augusta. With that said, here are a few nuggets that I would share with this baker if she were a coaching client and wanted tips on ways to avoid this situation in the future.
- Use contracts and documented instructions. Contracts and signed forms should be your first line of defense when it comes to setting customer expectations and communicating your policies. When your customer is required to sign a contract or initial your drop off form, they are acknowledging that they fully understand your policies and instructions. Later down the road, these signed documents will also support your case if you ever find yourself in court. They will literally be your evidence that the customer was informed of policies and detailed instructions such as keeping the cake in a cool area, removing all decorations before cutting, as well as communicating quality issues and concerns within a certain amount of time after delivery. Therefore, make sure you have a solid contract that explains your polices and have your customer sign it when placing the order. Then, on pick-up or delivery day, have your customer sign-off on your instructions guide and/or delivery confirmation form. #ThankMeLater
- Proper use of wire in cakes. If we want to get technical, there really isn’t a proper way to use wire in cakes. Since floral wires could possibly be made with elements such as lead or aluminum that can be hazardous if consumed, its a great idea not to stick them directly into cakes. Even beyond that, pre-treating wires to “make them food safe” by dipping them in candy melts or wrapping them in floral tape is also problematic for quite a few reasons. First, since the candy melts can break off of the flexible wire after hardening, the pre-treatment is pretty much pointless. Second, word on the street is that some floral tapes contain latex which can be an issue for folks with a sensitivity or allergy to latex. In other words, all signs point to wire not being the best idea for cakes. If you just have to use wire for your decorations, maybe stick to using it in dummy layers that are not to be consumed by the customer.
- Switch to less potentially hazardous materials. As business owners, we should remember that common sense isn’t always common, and that customers are going to assume that most decorations on the cake are edible. As it relates to this particular case, personally, I’m thinking homegirl could have protected herself by switching to a less hazardous option to help stabilize her decorations on the cake. My recommendation is to play around in the kitchen and find better alternatives such as raw spaghetti noodles, Wilton’s Floral Cake Spikes, posey picks, and even coffee stirrers.
- Cover your self and business with insurance. If you don’t have general liability insurance or FLIP insurance, look into getting some type of coverage ASAP. Insurance was created to help protect you from unexpected financial losses such as stolen equipment, damage to your facility and even lawsuits. If you’re really serious about running a successful food service business, I highly recommend taking steps to cover yourself by purchasing an insurance policy that will help cover some of your potential expenses if you were to find yourself in this same situation.
What would you do, and what are you going to do?
Stories like this one always inspire me to write articles that provide guidance on how the Sweet Fest Fam and Sugar Coin Collectors can avoid going through similar situations like this in the future. So my question now is…does this story make you want to make some changes in your process? Will you make customer sign-off on instructions at cake pick-up, or are you going to find a way to completely switch to less hazardous materials to support your decorations? Drop your thoughts in the comments. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.
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About the AuthorCydni N. Mitchell (aka Cyd) is the bakery and Sweet Business Coach behind Sweet Fest®. Based in Atlanta, GA, Sweet Fest® is an online company that supports the business needs of the Sweet Community in the areas of professional development, marketing and branding. By trade, Cyd is an accountant & financial analyst with a Masters from the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also the organizer of The Ultimate Sugar Show, a baking and sweets trade show in Atlanta, GA, and she is the Co-Founder of the Sugar Coin Academy, an online business academy for business owners in the baking and sweets industry. Learn more.