It was tradition in Russell Rich's family that every Friday night his dad would take the kids to McDonald's. Rich recalls gazing through the window of the local old-style McDonald's--the kind with the big golden arches and no indoor seating--and dreaming of flipping burgers like the workers inside.
He started working the cash register at age 13 and put in 21 years with the hamburger giant, eventually becoming a corporate manager. Then, he contends, he was pressured to resign in 1997 because he has AIDS. Left without health insurance, Rich said he nearly died from the illness. In 1999, he became so sick and despondent that he sat in his garage with the car running. He began to feel the sting of the carbon monoxide, then got out of the car.
"I decided I wasn't going to let McDonald's do this to me," he said.
Rich, 41, of Akron, won a $5 million verdict in his discrimination case against the burger chain in 2001. But the verdict was overturned after an appeals court ruled that McDonald's did not receive a fair trial. A new trial was scheduled to start Monday in Cleveland.
McDonald's spokesman William Whitman said in a statement Friday that the corporation has a zero-tolerance policy prohibiting any form of discrimination. "Mr. Rich's allegations against McDonald's are simply not supported by the facts," Whitman said. "We firmly believe, once we have an opportunity to present the facts in court, we will show that Mr. Rich's case against McDonald's is completely without merit."
Because he could not afford medication, Rich suffered four life-threatening illnesses before his case went to trial the first time. He was so weak in late 1999 that friends visited him to say goodbye. Then his doctor advised him to get involved with a clinical trial for the drug Fuzeon, which Rich credits with saving his life. He has since become a spokesman for Roche Group, the drug's maker.
Rich's anti-HIV medications, which cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, are being covered by the Ohio AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Rich said he is pursuing the lawsuit because he thinks McDonald's, and not taxpayers, should be paying.
"I truly believe McDonald's hopes to outlive me," he said. "They about did."
Ann Fisher, the executive director of the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, estimates that there are 100,000 U.S. food service workers with the illness. "If everybody with HIV who works in the food service industry didn't show up for work tomorrow, America would starve," she said. (AP)