Lawsuit Claims Chipotle Tried To Cover Up A Norovirus Outbreak Last Year

A new lawsuit alleges the burrito restaurant tried to "conceal all evidence" before contacting health officials in California last summer.

The same norovirus outbreak last summer at a Chipotle in Simi Valley, Calif. that has attracted the attention of criminal investigators now is also the subject of a civil lawsuit alleging the restaurant tried to "conceal all evidence of the outbreak" before contacting public health officials.

The plaintiffs, who were infected with norovirus, are seeking damages. Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said in an email, "As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss details surrounding pending legal actions."

Here are the main points from the complaint, which is embedded in full below:

1. The kitchen manager at the Simi Valley Chipotle started showing symptoms of illness Tues., Aug. 18, 2015 but continued working until Thurs., Aug. 20.

2. That Thursday, Chipotle closed the restaurant "in response to multiple customer complaints of gastrointestinal illness," the complaint stated. The area manager posted a sign in the restaurant instead saying that it was closed "due to a severe staffing shortage."

3. "Rather than immediately contacting the Ventura County Public Health Division to notify health officials and its customers of this foodborne illness outbreak, Chipotle chose instead to try and conceal all evidence of the outbreak by disposing of all food items, bleaching all cooking and food handling surfaces and replacing its sick employees with replacement employees from other restaurants before notifying county health officials of the outbreak," the lawsuit claimed.

4.The restaurant reopened on Friday. Chipotle left a voicemail
message on Sat., Aug. 22 notifying health officials that 17 of its employees at the Simi Valley restaurant were sick with gastrointestinal illness, and had
been replaced with crew from other Chipotle restaurants.

A total of 234 customers and employees reported gastrointestinal illness to
the Ventura County Environmental Health Division that week, although "the actual number of customers who became ill from this Norovirus outbreak is likely to be substantially higher," the lawsuit claimed.

Doug Beach, a manager of the food program for Ventura County's Environmental Health Division told Ventura County Star earlier this month that while the state doesn't specify a timeframe in which a restaurant must notify health officials, "normally, we are informed much earlier than that." Also, because all the food had been thrown out and the restaurant sanitized by the time officials arrived, it was difficult to investigate the outbreak. Health officials did note in their inspection report, however, that the workers handling food did not possess a food handler card from an accredited training program, that the floors were in "an unsanitary condition," and that they spoke with the operator about the importance of hand washing.

Several lawsuits have been filed against Chipotle related to the string of food-borne illness outbreaks linked to the chain last year.

The company — which since July has offered paid sick leave to workers who have been with the company for at least a year — is implementing new food safety and testing measures in restaurants, commissaries, and farms. It will close all restaurants the morning of Feb. 8 for an employee meeting to discuss the raft of new protocols.

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