Family Awarded $200K for Girl’s Reaction to Peanut in Burrito

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: May 28, 2024

A Massachusetts jury has found a restaurant chain negligent and awarded damages to a minor and her family after the girl was served a burrito containing peanut sauce. After one bite, she had a severe anaphylactic reaction.

The girl’s dad, Aaron Williams, says he took legal action against the Boston-based restaurant to set a precedent that encourages restaurants to be vigilant about food allergies. “We wanted to make sure it wouldn’t happen to someone else,” Williams tells Allergic Living.

Williams placed his family’s order online in the 2019 incident. It clearly noted a “peanut allergy” for the burrito for Williams’ 8-year-old daughter. 

Receipt from Boloco that notes a peanut allergy.

Boloco (also referred to as Stellar Restaurant Group in the lawsuit) must pay the Burlington, Massachusetts family more than $200,000 in damages, attorney’s fees and costs.

The May 20, 2024 judgment found the burrito eatery was negligent and served the child food that caused injury. In addition, a Massachusetts Superior Court ruling found the restaurant violated state consumer protection law. 

“I think the jury was thoughtful about their decision,” John Pepper, co-founder of Boloco, tells Allergic Living. 

The family’s attorney Laurel Francoeur calls the trial verdict and damages a victory for food-allergic customers. Francoeur is not aware of any other food allergy case in Massachusetts that resulted in a jury verdict.

“I’m hoping restaurants will take food allergies more seriously,” says Francoeur of the Francoeur Law Office near Boston.

Since a jury trial is public record, there will be more eyes on the burrito and allergy lawsuit. She says that should cause restaurants and insurance carriers to take notice. 

Williams hopes that’s true. He makes sure his daughter knows she is the reason the family stood up to help make restaurants safer for food-allergic customers. “I was excited to tell my daughter that she’s a hero.” 

‘Terrified’ During Allergic Reaction

On January 29, 2019, Williams ordered four burritos online from Boloco’s Atlantic Wharf location in Boston. He included the notation on one burrito for a peanut allergy. 

At home, the family sat down to eat. Williams says his daughter took one bite, and said her burrito tasted funny and her mouth felt tingly. Her order was for a burrito with cheese, black beans, rice and sour cream. However, she noticed something else brown-colored in her food. When her father tasted the substance, he realized – this was peanut sauce.

After calling the pediatrician, Williams and his wife Jenny monitored their daughter for worsening symptoms. She had a slight cough and her stomach hurt. 

But suddenly after a couple of hours, the girl started to feel itchy, hives began developing on her body, and her breathing was deteriorating. They rushed to the car and administered her epinephrine auto-injector before driving to the hospital. 

“Mom, dad, am I going to die?” their scared daughter asked from the back seat on the way to the hospital, Williams recalls. 

“We were terrified that our kid might die in the backseat, while we were also trying to reassure her,” he says. 

Another dose of epinephrine was administered at the hospital, and the young girl was monitored for a few hours before being released. 

The emotional distress from the burrito incident remains with the family five years later. Francoeur says the girl’s parents were crying on the stand as they relived the events. Their daughter, now 13, has suffered anxiety, especially about eating out after the incident. 

While the teen does eat at restaurants, her father says it is not without some nerves. When at a restaurant, she will ask a few times if her peanut allergy has been communicated.

Burrito Lawsuit’s Allergy Lessons

Boloco, which currently has two locations in Boston and one in New Hampshire, had been one of the Williams family’s go-to restaurants. But that changed after the disastrous order from the (now closed) Atlantic Wharf location.

The girl’s burrito from Boloco.

Williams was angry that, when he called about the incident the night of the reaction, the manager’s initial response was that there was nothing they could do, other than a refund. The next day, Williams posted a Tweet, calling out the situation as “not acceptable.” 

Seeing the Tweet, restaurant executives, including CEO Pepper, reached out to the father. Pepper also authored a blog post about the incident, writing: “The good news? She’s OK. The bad news? That this happened in the first place.”

“We were genuinely concerned,” Pepper tells Allergic Living. “The family had every right to be upset.” He agrees that food safety and allergies are “not something to take lightly.” 

The restaurant chain has taken steps to improve allergy safety. In response to the burrito allergy incident, Pepper says Boloco decided in 2020 to no longer carry peanut products. The restaurant removed two popular menu items, a Thai burrito with peanut sauce and a smoothie containing peanut butter. 

Additionally, Boloco pays to train all of its staff members through the ServSafe allergen program. Boloco leaders got serious about ensuring all employees complete the ServSafe course within six months of hiring. A company policy already required that, but Pepper says not everyone had been trained by the 2019 burrito incident. “We always have to be vigilant,” he says. 

Williams believed the company leaders understood the seriousness of the situation. But he decided legal action with “bigger consequences” was necessary to ensure improvements in allergy protocols would be put in place at Boloco and other restaurants.

Inside Burrito Incident Victory

Williams wanted something positive to come out of the “terrifying” burrito incident. “I wanted it to be important,” he says. Otherwise, “her reaction would have been for nothing.”

The jury ruled that the restaurant was negligent, and caused injury to a child. It also found the restaurant was in “breach of its warranty” to serve food that is safe for its customers. The judgment refers to serving peanut sauce not being expected “in the food that was especially ordered for someone suffering from peanut allergies.”

In addition, the judge ruled that the restaurant violated Massachusetts Consumer Protection Law with “unfair or deceptive practices.” But that the “violation was not committed knowingly or willingly,” according to the judgment. The total award to the plaintiffs, including interest from the date of the incident, is $219,961.

Williams says the money will go toward his daughter’s future. But he stresses the important outcome is getting the message to restaurants that food allergies are serious and to improve systems.

There have been other cases involving food allergies and restaurants in Massachusetts. One lawsuit in 2017 also involved peanut being added to a meal, instead of omitted.

In the 2016 incident in a Natick, Massachusetts Panera, a Boston family had placed an online order for a grilled cheese sandwich. Despite two notes that the order was for a child with a peanut allergy, the sandwich arrived with “a significant glob of peanut butter,” according to the civil lawsuit. That child also suffered a serious allergic reaction.

Francoeur was one of the attorneys for the family in that case, in which the parties resolved their differences in 2022 without a trial.

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