Food allergies are a growing concern among consumers. Some people are so susceptible to severe reactions that they never eat anywhere but home. However, educational institutions and restaurants are beginning to address the needs of those with food allergies – often in response to legal challenges.

A legal settlement in late 2012 with Lesley University requires the Massachusetts institution to serve gluten-free alternatives and remain flexible about other dietary needs of students with celiac disease.

Because of at least one complaint to the federal government about the school’s refusal to release vulnerable students from the meal plan, even though they couldn’t eat the designated foods, the university must now be sensitive to a wide variety of food allergies.

Lesley students can now pre-order their meals. The school agreed to dedicate space for storage and preparation of gluten-free food and train its staff about food allergies. It also agreed to a $50,000 cash settlement with the affected students.

How Restaurants Respond

This settlement has repercussions that go well beyond university meal plans. Now that the Justice Department is involved, food allergies may be seen as a disability under the law. Any business that sells food to the public can face consumer lawsuits if serious allergic reactions occur. In fact, a blatant disregard for a customer’s special request could put a restaurant in hot water.

Many restaurant chains have adopted strict policies involving their gluten-free menu choices. While some restaurants estimate that only 1% to 3% of their customers ask for gluten-free options, many eateries believe that going the extra mile for food safety is worth the effort.

Like the separate preparation protocol organized by Lesley University, a growing number of restaurants are setting up special rules for every step of the handling process concerning gluten-free items. From specific hand-washing stations and kitchen appliances to ingredient storage and even the coding on cash registers, many restaurants are trying to avoid contamination of any sort.

Food Allergy Lawsuits

According to the Mayo Clinic, approximately 6% to 8% of children under the age of 5 and about 3% to 4% of adults have food allergies. Symptoms can range from itchy rashes to life-threatening conditions such as anaphylaxis.

A variety of legal actions have taken place over the last few years on behalf of people who suffered severe injuries from exposure to particular ingredients In food. Among the cases:

  • In 2010, a Chicago student died from an allergic reaction to peanuts in Chinese food ordered by her class. Although the teacher claims the restaurant was clearly told to avoid using peanuts in any of the dishes, the meals contained peanuts and peanut products. The student’s father filed a three-count suit, seeking $100,000 from the Chinese Inn Restaurant.
  • In 2011, a Durham, North Carolina, bread company owner was found guilty of 23 counts of fraud and sent to prison for selling products he presented as gluten-free. Dozens of customers became ill after ingesting bread made by this company.
  • In 2013, the family of an elementary school student in Lansing, Michigan, accused the school district of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and state civil rights. They claimed that Livonia Public Schools did not properly implement a food allergy plan for their son and that he became a target of both administrators and students.

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About the Author

Mark Joye is the Head of the Litigation Department at the Joye Law Firm. A Board-Certified Trial Advocate with nearly 30 years of litigation experience, he currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice and is a past president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. In a recent trial, Joye headed a trial team that secured $17 million for a family killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

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