It took an online village for people to get the word out about getting sick — very sick — after eating at Don Antonio's, a popular West Los Angeles Mexican restaurant, in March.
Customers who came down with salmonella poisoning took to Yelp to warn others about the family-owned West Pico Boulevard restaurant, which has been in business since 1982 and boasts an "A" rating from the county health department. One posted on March 30: "We ate there on Friday, March 20. I ended up in the ER for several hours."
Another diner posted on March 28: "We had lunch there Thursday, March 19. One of my coworkers got so sick that she spent three days in the hospital."
After at least 11 reports of patrons contracting salmonella poisoning at Don Antonio's — which claims on its website to have the best Mexican food in Los Angeles — environmental health staff at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health conducted an on-site inspection of the eatery on March 25.
Numerous safety code violations were noted, including no food thermometers; inadequate ventilation and lighting; improper use and storage of wiping cloths used to wipe service counters, scales, and other surfaces that food may come into contact with; unapproved equipment and utensils; potentially hazardous food stored at improper holding temperatures; and issues with improperly sanitized food contact surfaces.
Now two of those sickened customers, Tamara Tavarani and Margaret Howard, have filed a lawsuit against the restaurant, alleging strict product liability, negligence, breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages. Their suit was filed May 15 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"More and more food-borne illness outbreaks are being cracked by customers taking to social media like Yelp and Twitter," said attorney Bill Marler, who is representing Tavarani and Howard.
Marler notes that previously such outbreaks often flew under the radar, never coming to the attention of health authorities. But now, he says, "local, state and national departments of health are monitoring social media as an early warning for food-borne illness outbreaks."
In Don Antonio's case, health officials "saw the Yelp info at about the same time they were getting reports from labs and hospitals about salmonella cases."
A Don Antonio's representative could not be immediately reached for comment.
According to the suit, Tavarani ate salsa, chips, beef taquitos and rice at Don Antonio's on March 19. Four days later, she began experiencing symptoms and went to UCLA Health Centers, where doctors confirmed she had a salmonella infection.
Howard, who ate with Tavarani, ordered a cheese enchilada and beans and shared chips and salsa with Tavarani, the suit says. She became sick two days later, went to the doctor and also was diagnosed with a salmonella infection, according to the suit.
The only food the two ate in common was salsa. Both say they have ongoing symptoms from their salmonella poisoning.
According to the lawsuit, after the health department's March 25 visit, "The restaurant manager was advised of the violations and instructed to correct all violations immediately." The restaurant was allowed to remain open, and there have been no salmonella cases reported since.