2015-02-05 / Community

Popular local deli dealing with aftermath of salmonella cases

Brent’s is sued by woman who got food poisoning in August
By Becca Whitnall

POPULAR—A local institution, Brent’s Deli is facing some heat over a string of salmonella cases that allegedly occurred at the Westlake restaurant last summer. The restaurant is being sued by a patron who says she became ill after eating there. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers POPULAR—A local institution, Brent’s Deli is facing some heat over a string of salmonella cases that allegedly occurred at the Westlake restaurant last summer. The restaurant is being sued by a patron who says she became ill after eating there. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers A Ventura County woman is suing a popular Westlake eatery, claiming she got sick after eating there in August.

As of Feb. 3, Brent’s Deli on Townsgate Road had a clean bill of health, having passed a Ventura County Environmental Health Department inspection with no violations noted.

“First and foremost, it is completely safe to dine at Brent’s Deli,” said restaurant owner Marc Hernandez in written correspondence to the Acorn.

But that wasn’t the case over the summer, when Stephanie Wehr of Oxnard ate lunch there with her family on Aug. 2, she says in a lawsuit filed Jan. 22 on her behalf by attorney Trevor Quirk.

Quirk said his client, a nurse practitioner at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center, is hoping for accountability and to raise awareness through the suit.

“It’s sad because it’s a local deli,” Quirk said. “We’re not here trying to hurt businesses, but they didn’t do the right thing and got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and said they weren’t trying to take cookies.”

Wehr alleges Brent’s was negligent in the way it handled food and sanitation and, as a result, she got salmonella poisoning that put her in the hospital.

Citing a state salmonella investigation and county environmental health department inspection reports from July that called attention to the issues, the suit claims “Brent’s . . . knew or should have known the premises . . . was contaminated with salmonella.”

“Its chef and employees did not know proper procedures for food handling, cooling and/or sanitizing; food was not properly stored and cooled; wiping cloths were not kept in sanitizing solutions between wipes (and) employees were not washing their hands before handling food or utensils,” the suit states.

The environmental health department, which is responsible for restaurant and food safety in Ventura County, inspected the diner on July 9, 2014, according to department records. It was Brent’s first inspection of the year.

At the routine July 9 visit, an inspector noted 16 violations, including improper sanitation, food storage, food temperature, equipment maintenance and pest control concerns. At a July 22 follow-up inspection, nine violations were noted, including some of the same issues.

Inspectors determined all violations were properly addressed when they returned for a third time on July 29 and gave Brent’s a clean bill of health, according to records.

In his written statement to the Acorn, Hernandez said the restaurant acted quickly to comply with food safety codes after learning of the violations.

“When we were notified this past summer, we immediately worked with Ventura County health officials to evaluate our food safety practices, and immediately addressed and corrected all of its directives. At no time were we required by county health officials to close our store.”

Though not required to, the restaurant chose to close early one day to have the entire restaurant thoroughly cleaned and sanitized by a third-party cleaning company, Hernandez said.

Brent’s also hired a consulting company that specializes in food safety audits, assessments and training for the restaurant industry.

The company, UL Everclean, currently conducts unexpected audits of Brent’s food safety practices and works with the restaurant to carry out any necessary changes and additional employee training.

A timeline for these measures was not provided by Brent’s, but it was too little too late to prevent Wehr from suffering severe salmonella food poisoning symptoms, the lawsuit says.

Salmonella is a bacteria that can cause fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea 12 to 72 hours after infection and last from four to seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of the approximately 1.2 million illnesses caused by salmonella in the United States annually, 19,000 result in hospitalization. Salmonella is estimated to cause 380 deaths in the country annually, according to the CDC.

In her lawsuit, Wehr said she began to not feel well on Aug. 3, the day after consuming a corned beef sandwich on egg bread, potato salad, onion rings, a pickle and iced tea at Brent’s. She went to bed early that night.

“Unfortunately, just three hours later, she was woken up by abdominal cramping and pain,” along with other symptoms, including a 100.3-degree fever, the lawsuit states.

Though she went to see her doctor that day, her symptoms continued to worsen: She developed a 103-degree fever, chills, ongoing diarrhea, excruciating abdominal pain with cramping and vomiting. By the morning of Aug. 5, “she could barely move, was very short of breath and weak,” the lawsuit says.

By then, Wehr had lost 10 pounds overnight and her heart rate was 118 beats per minute.

She was admitted to the hospital that day and not discharged until five days later, the suit says.

And she wasn’t the only one to get sick. Wehr’s suit suggests a total of 21 people, including two employees at Brent’s, were identified by the California Department of Public Health with the same salmonella strain as Wehr in the last year. Of those, eight people whose onset-ofillness dates ranged from April 30 to Aug. 15 were hospitalized, the suit claims.

Neither the state nor the county departments of public health made the information public. Calls to both agencies were not returned in time for publication.

Though he didn’t include the information in the paperwork filed with the Ventura County Superior Court, Quirk says he has county documents citing cases of salmonella connected with Brent’s going back eight years.

“Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean Brent’s knew about it in ’07, but I find it hard to believe this has been going on for eight years and they only found out about it now,” he said.

Wehr is asking to be compensated for past and future medical and medical-related expenses, economic and wage losses, loss of enjoyment of life and other ordinary, incidental and consequential damages as would be anticipated to arise under the circumstances. She is also asking for punitive damages.

Quirk said he couldn’t anticipate how much the reward might be because punitive damages are related to the wealth of a company or person.

“You don’t know because punitive damages mean different things. What’s punitive to a company like Ford would be different than what’s punitive to me,” he said. “We don’t know what’s punitive to Brent’s because we don’t know how much they make.”

For its part, Brent’s has issued a message to its customers on its website’s blog at blog.brentsdeli.com outlining steps it’s taken to ensure the safety of its customers and employees.

“We are focused on continuous improvement—and will continue to take a hands-on approach in order to prevent similar situations from happening in the future and put our customers’ safety first, always,” the statement says.

Hernandez said the restaurant encourages customers who experience any issues to contact Brent’s at wecare@brentsdeli.com.

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