“Hey mom, we have a problem. This has nuts in it,” said Trevor Gartman, then 16, from the backseat of his mother’s car.
His mom, Angela Jones, had handed him a pastry she’d bought for him. It was meant to be nut-free, since he has a tree nut allergy. He saw no nuts on it, but after a couple of bites, Trevor crunched down on something hard. It would turn out to be pecan. He tells Allergic Living that he immediately felt a stabbing sensation on his tongue and burning in his mouth.
“I had never felt my mouth like that,” recalls Gartman, now 20, of Brandon, Mississippi.
Those few bites in March 2018 would set off a dangerous, prolonged anaphylactic reaction that rocked Trevor’s world. He would require several shots of epinephrine and the once happy-go-lucky young man would go on to experience anxiety and soon be diagnosed with PTSD.
The events of that day would also be the start of a long legal chapter, since he and his mother launched a negligence lawsuit against the owners of a Panera Bread fast-food franchise. But the pair would come away from a jury trial with a qualified win, one that to this day leaves Jones, in particular, feeling judged.
‘I Had to Get Help’
Jones bought the pastry at a Panera Bread location in nearby Flowood, Mississippi, while having lunch there with a friend. In the afternoon, she picked up Trevor from school to take him to a routine pediatrician’s appointment. She just happened to give her son the supposedly nut-free pastry in the parking lot where the doctor’s office was located. As he began feeling symptoms, they went inside for the appointment, and the doctor’s nurse gave him some liquid Benadryl.
This was followed by an epinephrine shot when Trevor said he was still not feeling right. He was monitored for about 45 minutes before returning to the car with no obvious allergic symptoms.
The teen wanted to lie down for a bit. So he stretched out his 6-foot, 4-inch frame in the back seat, while his mother made a call. Suddenly, Trevor felt like something was stuck in his throat and as if he was going in and out of consciousness. Turning around from the front seat, his mother, a registered nurse, was shocked. “His face was red, he was drooling and I could see the fear,” Jones said. “I knew immediately I had to get help.” She adds: “I will never forget that moment as long as I live.”
The mom helped her son, who was now vomiting and having trouble breathing, out of the car. They hustled back to the doctor’s office. Trevor required multiple injections of epinephrine, with his symptoms returning after each dose and his oxygen level dropping. He remembers being in a fog amid the chaos of emergency personnel rushing him into an ambulance. He was admitted to the hospital, where he finally improved, and was released in the morning.
Jones had contacted the Panera outlet manager to discuss that the pastry had triggered this big reaction. Then a few months later, she and her son decided to sue Delta Dough, the franchise that owned the Panera Flowood location. (Delta Dough no longer operates this outlet, which was purchased by another company in February 2019.)
Lawsuit: Allergy Sign vs. Training
Attorney Craig Sessums agreed to represent Gartman in a negligence lawsuit after he learned about the teen’s severe anaphylaxis and subsequent anxiety. “I thought, ‘this is just wrong,’” said Sessums, of Funderburg, Sessums & Peterson PLLC in Jackson, Mississippi.
The franchise’s lawyers viewed it quite differently. Delta Dough could not be reached for comment for this article, nor did Panera Bread respond to our requests.
However, in trial documents, Delta Dough’s lawyers placed emphasis on Jones having taken several minutes to order pastries for herself, her son and another relative. While doing so, they noted that she stood next to a sign warning products either “contain or may come into contact with” common allergens. It advised customers with food allergies to ask a manager for ingredient information. The defense side noted pointedly that Jones was an experienced nurse.
The mother counters that she didn’t notice the sign at Panera that day, but did raise her son’s allergy. And Jones doesn’t believe a sign alone is sufficient. “I think it should fall on the company to assure that someone with trained knowledge be available in the area at risk,” she says.
In its March 10, 2020 verdict, the jury found Delta Dough guilty of negligence, and awarded about $27,500 for medical, pain and suffering. But the jury also assigned fault to Jones and Gartman in the case, which was tried over a few days in early March 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
“We proved that the store was negligent in the acts of their employees that led to an injury to Trevor,” says Sessums, who thought a $100,000 would have been a more usual award based on the events and costs. He found it shocking that the jury found Jones 70 percent at fault in the case, and that Gartman bore 10 percent of the responsibility. This reduced the award to the family to $5,507, though they didn’t receive that amount due to litigation fees, Sessums says.
Ordering: Confusion Arises
Before ordering the pastry that would change her and Trevor’s lives, Jones says she told the Panera clerk that her son had nut allergies. During the lawsuit, the young clerk remembered hearing “peanut allergy”.
However, the clerk testified many of the pastries in the display case that day were mislabeled. When Angela saw the pastry labeled “bear claw,” she thought it was a cinnamon twist. When the clerk reached into another slot for the actual bear claw, with chopped almonds on it. Jones told him that, no, she wanted the cinnamon twist. (It was actually a pecan braid.)
Delta Dough’s defense attorney said at trial that Panera’s pecan braids always have an identifying pecan on top. But Jones says the pastry she was sold had no visible nuts.
Sessums noted in court that Panera’s national guidebook says counter employees must refer customers with allergy questions to a manager. But facts in the lawsuit show the outlet’s manager had not yet given this clerk, who’d been on the job less than a week, any food allergy training. He hadn’t heard about alerting the manager for an allergy customer.
He also testified that he did not know whether there were nuts in the pastries, nor did he know pecan was a tree nut.
Jones says it was tough to relive the frightening anaphylaxis incident at trial, and she felt the defense was blaming her as a mother for the purchase. While feeling disappointment at the outcome, Jones and Gartman say they would pursue legal remedies again to help others with food allergies. “Restaurants and food places should be held accountable for education of the employees, standards of practice for preparing food and cross-contamination,” Jones says.
Gartman is not alone in reacting to tree nuts served at an eatery. A December 2020 study found that tree nuts were the most common cause of reactions requiring epinephrine in customers who had allergic reactions while dining out. The study concluded that the findings point to a need for mandatory restaurant staff training. It also found that 54 percent of food-allergic reactions occurred despite telling restaurant staff about an allergy.
The severe reaction served as a wake-up call for Gartman and his mom about how to ensure his safety. Now a junior at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, Gartman has stepped up his allergy management habits.
He’d avoided nuts and carried his epinephrine auto-injector since a mild childhood reaction led to his diagnosis. But today, he takes more precautions. For example, because he can commute to campus, he prefers to eat meals at home and bring his safe snacks. He has worked with his college to develop an emergency plan, which includes providing each professor with a list of symptoms and treatment, and he provided the faculty with auto-injector trainers. Education about symptoms and using an epinephrine auto-injector without delay now extends to family and friends.
Gartman is also a believer in taking care of your mental health. Though he experienced PTSD after his severe reaction, he benefited from counseling. He has learned how to manage the PTSD and anxiety better. Today, Gartman participates in online peer support groups for people with food allergies. He also turns to writing to help work through food allergy anxiety.
“Not everyone is going to understand your story or support you – even family. But you matter. Your life matters,” says Gartman. “Ignorance can only be destroyed through education.”
Fast-Food and Dining Takeaways
Here are some tips from Allergic Living about how to navigate quick-serve eateries safely, while dining with food allergies.
Research before you go: Skim the online menus to see what allergens are being used in dishes. Also check online nutritional information on fast-food outlet’s corporate website. (Often, there are allergen charts.)
Ask ahead: If the menus look reasonable for your allergies, contact the specific fast-food location to find out whether they can safely accommodate your allergy. Speak to the manager or designated employee knowledgeable about food allergy practices. Will your food be cooked separately from those containing your allergen to avoid cross-contact? Ask specifically about allergens that may be cooked on the grill or in the fryer. Is there an ingredients list? What allergy protocols do the staff follow and who supervises?
Ingredients: Desserts can be especially tricky. Often pastries are made off premises and staff are not fully aware of ingredients. If that’s so, skip the sweets. Also, watch utensils. Is the same scoop being used to serve butter pecan ice cream?
Once on-site: Clearly communicate your allergy and your needs. Repeat some of the questions you asked earlier.
If in doubt, avoid it. Do not risk a reaction if you’re not sure what’s in your food, or if you’re not confident of measures to avoid food cross-contact.
Emergency plan: Keep details about your allergies and medical contacts with you, whether on a food allergy card or in your phone. Carry epinephrine at all times and don’t hesitate to use it.
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