updated 7/3/2005 5:47:19 PM ET 2005-07-03T21:47:19

Applebee’s International Inc. says an internal investigation has discovered that a former employee at a Jefferson, La., restaurant cut the tip off his thumb a year ago and that likely is the fingertip found by a customer now suing the restaurant chain.

May Deal Chambers Johnson of Jefferson Parish claims she found a fingertip in a salad she bought at the restaurant a year ago. She filed suit against the Overland Park, Kan.-based chain on June 24 in Louisiana state court, seeking unspecified damages.

In a statement Saturday, Applebee’s said “while some facts are still unclear, we now believe a former employee at this restaurant accidentally cut the very tip of his thumb last year.” The company said the man described the cut as “roughly the size of a sunflower seed.”

In its statement, Applebee’s said it wanted to apologize to Johnson.

“We deeply regret this isolated incident from last year,” the statement said. “Food safety remains our top priority.”

Johnson’s attorney, Michael Darnell of New Orleans, said Sunday that he hadn’t seen the statement or spoken with Applebee’s officials since filing the lawsuit.

But Darnell said the statement made him question whether Applebee’s and other chain restaurants are doing enough to make sure tainted food doesn’t get served.

“These things will happen in a kitchen environment but the good establishments make sure the proper precautions are taken,” he said, adding that health department officials should have been notified as soon as the restaurant management found out about it.

A spokeswoman for Applebee’s didn’t immediately return a call Sunday seeking comment.

The case originally had echoes of a similar claim made in March against Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy’s International Inc. when a woman told police she found a fingertip in a bowl of chili at a Wendy’s in San Jose, Calif. Police later called the case a hoax and have charged with woman with conspiracy to commit fraud and grand theft.

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