The Daily Texan – Top Stories
By Andrew B. Tran
Chipotle Mexican Grill, known for its enormous burritos, is being sued for causing someone to lose weight.
Thomas Engwall, a UT kinesiology graduate student, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Denver-based burrito chain, claiming the Chipotle on the Drag gave him food poisoning on June 16, 2004.
Engwall’s attorney says he got sick and lost 20 pounds, which helped prevent Engwall from qualifying for the U.S. Olympic javelin team the following month.
“He had won the Big 12 championship earlier, but because he got sick, athletes in the Big 12 that he beat previously placed higher than he did in the Olympic qualifiers,” said Price Ainsworth, Engwall’s attorney.
The manager of the Guadalupe Street Chipotle at the time of the incident, Chandler Wiley, was also named as a defendant in the suit.
Wiley was on vacation and unavailable for comment, said Ben Caton, supervisor of the Chipotle at Stassney Lane where Wiley is currently general manager.
Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, said he had not yet heard of the lawsuit and did not know if the company had been sued in the past on the grounds of strict liability.
“We can’t speak on it as a pending legal matter,” Arnold said.
The suit claims that a barbacoa taco gave Engwall immediate pain and discomfort in the abdomen. The Minnesota native says he suffered repeated bouts of vomiting and diarrhea followed by dehydration.
“He was disappointed in not being in top physical condition,” Ainsworth said, stating that Engwall had lost weight from the loss of fluids. “It’s a temporal aspect; he ate food that afternoon and got sick that evening … coupled with the fact that there were a number of students that got sick from eating there.”
University Health Services reported seven cases of food-borne illness on June 18, 2004, prompting the Austin/Travis County Health Department to inspect the Chipotle on the Drag.
The restaurant passed the inspection and remained open, but as the days passed, reports of illnesses related to Chipotle rose.
The store shut its doors and reopened three days later, with employees from neighboring Chipotle restaurants temporarily taking the place of workers who were placed on a week-long leave to prevent contamination.
Jennifer Goodlow, a creative writing senior at Texas State University, was working at Chipotle during the 2004 viral outbreak. She was one of the only employees to have traces of the virus found in her system. She said the health department determined that the sick students were not afflicted with food poisoning, but with norovirus – a group of viruses that cause gastroenteritis, which leads to irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract.
Goodlow was asked to take an extra week off after samples showed she had no signs of the virus left in her system, “which was nice for me because I got a paid vacation.” She paused, adding somberly, “But it wasn’t fun.”
Goodlow said she suspects that she caught the sometimes-airborne virus when she went to clean up vomit that a customer had left behind in the bathroom.
An inspector from the health department came to inspect the restaurant after the first victim’s report and eventually determined that there were no signs of negligence.
Despite the county’s conclusion, Ainsworth said it was up to the jury to decide where Engwall got food poisoning.
“Just because [the health department] didn’t identify where it came from, that doesn’t exonerate Chipotle,” he said.