Georgia man sues Cooper's Hawk over 'contaminated basil'

FDA links multi-state outbreak to fresh basil imported from Mexico

By Jim Piggott - Reporter, Garrett Pelican - Digital executive producer, Erik Avanier - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A Georgia man is suing Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant, a Mexico-based logistics company and a Jacksonville produce wholesaler for more than $15,000 in damages, saying he got sick for several weeks after dining at the restaurant.

The personal injury complaint, filed Friday in Duval County by plaintiff James Walker of Valdosta, cites a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigation into a multi-state outbreak of more than 100 cases of foodborne illnesses "potentially linked to fresh basil" imported from Mexico.

Defendants named in the latest lawsuit include Siga Logistics, the Morelos, Mexico, company that produced the basil; The Garden Produce, the wholesaler that distributed it; and Cooper’s Hawk, where the basil was eventually served.

DOCUMENTS: View a PDF copy of the lawsuit

Attempts on Friday to contact Walker were unsuccessful. Employees for The Garden Produce had no comment. A manager at Cooper's Hawk referred a reporter to a previous statement provided by the restaurant. 

"Cooper’s Hawk continues to work closely with the Health Department to follow all necessary protocols while upholding our commitment to the highest health and food safety standards in our restaurants," the statement said, adding that the restaurant has removed the product and switched suppliers.

Fact sheet from CDC

In the complaint, Walker said he and his wife celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary at the Markets at Town Center restaurant June 15. He was the only one in his party whose meal included fresh basil. Five days later, he began experiencing gas, vomiting and diarrhea, among other symptoms of cyclospora.

The complaint said Walker was forced to seek medical attention for the "debilitating illness" that lasted for at least four weeks before physicians could properly diagnose him. It went on to say that he has still not yet fully recovered, despite getting treatment for cyclosporiasis.

“He’s recovering, but he’s not there yet," attorney Ron Simon, of the national food safety law firm Ron Simon & Associates, told News4Jax by phone Friday.

According to the complaint, the basil was both dangerous and defective because not only did it contain cyclospora, but the defendants did not take steps necessary to make sure the product was free of contamination and consumers were not warned the product might not be safe.

Cyclospora is a microscopic parasite that spreads when infected feces come into contact with food, according to the FDA. It can take between two and 14 days to incubate. Eating contaminated food can cause a range of symptoms including watery diarrhea and "frequent, sometimes explosive bowel movements."

The lawsuit follows a previous suit, filed July 12 by Lekeysha Bentley, which alleged Bentley got sick a few days after eating at Cooper's Hawk. That suit claims the restaurant failed to maintain and monitor the safety of its products and did not follow adequate food safety procedures.

“If you serve a food that’s poisonous, and it hurts someone, you are liable whether or not you knew it was poisonous," Simons said. "That goes for anyone along the distribution chain."

In a previous statement, the restaurant told News4Jax it notified the Health Department about the incidents as soon as complaints came in. Customers with health concerns are asked to contact the restaurant's customer service team via phone at 844-944-1444.

Outbreak linked to imported basil

The FDA estimates that 132 people across 11 states fell ill after eating the basil, four of whom went to the hospital as a result.

"We now have 132 confirmed cases in those states," Simon said Friday.

Most of those cases appear to have happened in Jacksonville with a local attorney saying 100 customers claim to have gotten sick after dining at Cooper’s Hawk.

Siga Logistics, the company that exported the produce, has since issued a voluntary recall for the basil at the FDA’s request. The FDA is warning restaurants and other food service providers not to sell the product and recommends consumers avoid fresh basil unless they’re certain of the source.

"FDA is working with the firm to facilitate a recall. As this outbreak investigation continues, the FDA will work with our Mexican food safety regulatory counterparts to better define the cause and source of this outbreak," the regulator said, adding that additional updates would be forthcoming.

Cooper's Hawk restaurant released the following statement:

"Cooper’s Hawk continues to work closely with the Health Department to follow all necessary protocols while upholding our commitment to the highest health and food safety standards in our restaurants. 32 other states have also reported increases in the number of cyclosporiasis cases. The FDA has announced that one of the multistate outbreaks has been linked to fresh basil imported from Siga Logistics de RL de CV of Morelos, Mexico.  The investigation is still on-going. Cooper’s Hawk is also encouraging guests and the public who may have questions or concerns to reach out to our food safety/customer care line at 844-944-1444. We are addressing out of pocket expenses, testing, etc. with guests that may have been ill regardless if you have representation. Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our Guest, our Staff, and our Community."  

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