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Trendy New York-based Mediterranean chain Fig & Olive is having a bad month, apparently on both sides of the country.
A second lawsuit against the restaurant was filed yesterday in the U.S. District Court for D.C. by plaintiff Josseline De Saint Just, who alleges that she became sick with salmonella after dining at Fig & Olive’s CityCenterDC location on Sept. 5. According to the complaint, the Montgomery County resident “ordered drinks, a crostini appetizer, tuna carpaccio, and a truffle mushroom croquet, with an apple tart and vanilla ice cream.” Two days later, she began to feel “extreme fatigue,” suffering “repeated bouts of diarrhea coupled with severe abdominal cramping.” Blood samples eventually tested positive for a salmonella infection—a common but potentially lethal disease if left untreated. De Saint Just is nominally suing the restaurant for $250,000 as well as attorney’s fees.
She’s not the only one. Last week, Arlington resident Laura Donahue filed a similar complaint, having dined at Fig & Olive on Sept. 2. The District Department of Health shut down the eatery for six days, requiring it to remove truffle fries and mushroom croquettes from its menus (items suspected of containing pathogens), review its food-handling and sanitation practices, and purge its entire food stock. On Sept. 16, DOH allowed Fig & Olive to reopen—despite 10 confirmed cases of salmonella and 150 “possible cases”—as the restaurant had complied with regulations.
As of Wednesday, DOH had confirmed 14 cases of salmonella infection linked to Fig & Olive’s D.C. site, says Marcus Williams, a spokesperson for the department. “Interviews of those who reported illnesses are ongoing; to date, DOH has interviewed 135 persons,” he explains in an email to City Desk. “DOH has visited the establishment twice since restoring its license.” The restaurant remains open.
So does the West Hollywood location of Fig & Olive, notwithstanding nine confirmed cases of salmonella connected to it—six affecting patrons and three affecting employees, according to a spokesperson from the L.A. Department of Public Health. There too, items containing truffle oil have been removed from the menu, but no recall on the eatery’s retail truffle oil has been issued. The restaurant’s corporate office told the Los Angeles Times that it had “voluntarily closed” the West Hollywood spot, on Melrose Place, “for a brief time after some diners and employees reported they had become sick.” “We immediately hired a third-party food safety firm and worked with the Public Health Department in Los Angeles to address the situation,” they stated.
Bill Marler, a nationally recognized food-safety lawyer based in Seattle, is representing both D.C. plaintiffs. He says he’s already been contacted by two people from Los Angeles and “a dozen others” in the D.C. region. Marler hasn’t heard from the opposing counsel so far, and Fig & Olive’s corporate office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from City Paper. (See update below.)
“[The dual outbreak] does raise the question about whether or not there might be a common food item between the restaurants,” Marler explains. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense on the face of it given that they’re about as far away from each other as they can possible get. On the other hand, the timing is what it is. They can definitely do genetic [testing] and see if there’s a match.”
Marler adds that an additional party could be at fault, such as a supplier Fig & Olive sources its ingredients from. “A jury might even say the restaurant is a victim just like the victim is,” he says. In that case, the plaintiffs would addend the third party to the lawsuit, or Fig & Olive would cross-claim it as a defendant. “The real question is if [Fig & Olive] can push some financial responsibility onto someone else,” he says. “It probably doesn’t make much difference for my clients [in terms of compensation].” Still, Marler continues, the establishment in food-adulteration cases is always held “strictly liable” since they produced and served the food; the law presumes that they were negligent for “manufacturing” the product, so to speak.
Bonnie Russo was one of the diners at Fig & Olive’s West Hollywood location who says she became sick after dining there and eventually tested positive for salmonella. Russo says she attended a luncheon with about 40 of her coworkers on Friday, Sept. 11. By Monday morning, she was so sick she couldn’t go to work. “I thought it was from Chinese food from a place [my husband and I] had never been before [that] Sunday night,” Russo says. “Then I texted my boss and she listed off the 15 or so people who also got sick.” She adds that she was out of work for more than a week.
Russo provided City Desk with a copy of the Fig & Olive menu served at her office’s luncheon; she recalls she ate the truffle mushroom croquette, the chicken tajine, and the dessert “crostini”:
“I am not a professional, but I have been sick in the past before just with eating some food that wasn’t cooked properly, and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Russo explains, reached on the phone this past Monday. “I’ve just been a hostage in my house. It’s been a nightmare.”
Update, Friday 2: 40 p.m.: Fig & Olive has released the following statement:
Fig & Olive’s Washington D.C. City Center and Melrose Place locations are both open and doing business as usual. A week ago, we voluntarily closed our West Hollywood location for a brief time after some diners and employees reported they had become sick. We immediately hired a third party food safety firm and worked with the Public Health Department in Los Angeles to address the situation. After taking steps to ensure that all food preparation and safety standards were being followed, that food stocks were safe, and all employees had been screened, the restaurant reopened the same day with the Health Department’s approval. We are confident we have adequately addressed the situation. We remain committed to delivering the highest quality food and excellence of preparation and service that is the hallmark of the Fig & Olive brand.
This post has been updated.
Photo by Jessica Sidman