Salmonella is on the menu again at a Minnesota restaurant that has had numerous health code violations, according to a lawsuit filed Jan. 11 in Dakota County.
This time, a 34-year-old man fell ill, hospitalized for debilitating and painful salmonella infection after eating at a West St. Paul Great Moon Buffet in November 2021, just a few months after a third outbreak at the restaurant. The Pritzker Hageman firm filed suit on behalf of plaintiff Joseph Ramos seeking more than $50,000 to compensate for medical expenses, pain and suffering and emotional distress.
Great Moon Buffet is a pan-Asian buffet restaurant with several Minnesota locations. It had been associated with three previous salmonella outbreaks stretching back to 2018. The fourth salmonella outbreak, which caused Ramos to become seriously ill, led to an investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health. After the investigation, the department said that the issues were “worse than on previous inspections.”
The MDH inspection, which took place on Dec. 14, 2021, found restaurant employees were washing hands in a bucket instead of a sink, using a dirty towel to dry them. Rodent droppings, as well as a dead rodent, were found near the prep area. Dead insects were found behind the dry racks. Additionally, a live cockroach was found in the buffet area.
There were also multiple sources of cross-contamination. Raw chicken prepared in a large standing mixer had splashed onto bags and boxes. Ventilation hoods were dripping grease and grime onto cooking surfaces. The restaurant also continued to use a spray hose to wash the floor, despite being ordered by MDH to stop its use. Using the hose was causing salmonella reservoirs on the floor to splash onto food.
The restaurant was ordered closed after the inspection pending substantial remedial measures. A follow-up inspection on Jan. 13, 2022, showed many of the outstanding violations were recurring. MDH has said that they cannot “remember a worse offender” than Great Moon Buffet. Despite this, the restaurant remains operational.
Minnesota Lawyer reached out to the Minnesota Department of Health for comment but had not heard back from the time of publication.
Pritzker Hageman attorney Raymond Trueblood-Konz said the fact that Great Moon Buffet can still operate is not the MDH’s fault.
“Minnesota has a wonderful health department, one of the best in the country, if not the best. But they have limited authority, even in responding to a repeat offender like Great Moon Buffet,” Trueblood-Konz said.
In a previous case in July 2021, an 11-year-old girl became ill after eating watermelon contaminated due to use of the spray hose to clean the kitchen floor. Pritzker Hageman represented the girl, and the parties settled.
At the time that Pritzker Hageman filed that first lawsuit against Great Moon Buffet, the fourth salmonella outbreak occurred. Several people have contacted Pritzker Hageman about contracting food poisoning at the restaurant.
Trueblood-Konz believes that the settlement in the watermelon case caused the restaurant to reevaluate its practices.
“Lawsuits can put insurance companies on notice that their insureds have a problem.” Trueblood-Konz said. “Faced with the risk of losing insurance coverage, savvy businesses correct those problems to appease their insurers. These three forces—public health authorities, insurance company oversight, and civil litigants—all put pressure on businesses like this to either shape up or close down.”
While Great Moon Buffet has been a repeat offender, it is far from the only Minnesota restaurant causing its patrons to become seriously ill. Pritzker Hageman has represented hundreds of foodborne illness clients from all across the country when there have been large, multistate outbreaks.
MDH keeps track of reported cases of salmonellosis. In 2020, there were 660 cases reported. Those numbers are likely less than the reality. This is because many people with milder symptoms convalesce at home. Additionally, doctors have to identify the pathogen involved and then report the illness to public health authorities.
Many people who become sick with foodborne illness do not realize that they have legal recourse, Trueblood-Konz said. Not only can taking legal action allow them to get compensation for their injuries, but it can force restaurants to remedy violations.
“If more people had come forward in response to their earlier outbreaks, these forces may have caused the Great Moon Buffet to clean up its operations earlier,” Trueblood-Konz said.
Great Moon Buffet did not return requests for comment.