October 24, 2016

Lawsuit Alleges Chipotle Tried To Cover Up Outbreak

Chipotle Mexican GrillA lawsuit against Chipotle this week alleges employees tried to cover up a Norovirus outbreak that occurred at a Simi Valley, California location in August. The suit was filed in the Central District of California Western Division, case number 2:16-cv-00399-PA.

The suit stems from a norovirus outbreak that occurred at the location in August 2015, the same month a Minnesota Salmonella outbreak sickened 64 people who ate at 22 Chipotle locations. And one month after an E. coli outbreak, that was not disclosed at the time, sickened five people in the Seattle area.

Norovirus, formerly called Norwalk virus, is highly contagious. It causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Plaintiffs include seven minors and one adult who were all sick for two days with vomiting and diarrhea. One of them, who was 16, lost 13 pounds over a 48-hour period, according to the suit.

The suit alleges that the kitchen manger worked August 18 -20 preparing and handling food while experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness, a violation of the company’s food safety policy. On Thursday, August 20, the kitchen manager saw a doctor, was diagnosed with a norovirus infection and told not to return to work. That same day, in response to reports of customer illnesses, the restaurant implemented its “Norwalk Protocol” and closed to the public posting a sign that read the closure was due to a staffing problem.

Instead of reporting the outbreak to local health authorities at the Ventura County Health Division, employees tried to conceal it by  “disposing of all food items, bleaching all cooking and food handling surfaces and replacing its sick employees with replacement employees from other restaurants before notifying county health officials of the outbreak,” according to the suit.

When a small group of those who had been sickened came to the store on August 20 to report their illnesses to the manager, they were told there was no problem with the food, that the closure was dues to a staffing shortage and given a coupon for a free meal, according to the suit.

The restaurant re-opened Friday, August 21 with employees from another location.  On Saturday, August 22, the Simi Valley location called Ventura Health and left a voicemail that 17 of its employees were sick and had been replaced with a new crew, according to the suit. By reporting on Saturday, the restaurant avoided inspection until Monday, the suit alleges.

Given the delay, the removal of food and the cleaning of the workspace, a health official stated they were unable to perform the investigation as they normally would have. Still, they found several food safety violations including dirty walls, ceilings and floors and a dirty bathroom. The lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal woes stemming from multiple Chipotle outbreaks during 2015 including a multistate E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 53 people.


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