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Teen dies after eating pancakes at restaurant; family files lawsuit

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BEMIDGI, Minn. (CNN) — A Minnesota family has filed a lawsuit against a restaurant for what they’re calling a fatal mistake.

They say they were told that the establishment’s pancakes were dairy-free. Their son had a severe dairy allergy and died after a meal at the restaurant.

Scott Johnson’s parents say his smile was brightest when he was left to explore Minnesota’s lakes and woods.

“He could light up a room,” mother Cindy Johnson said.

Scott was the second of four children in a family that always looked out for him.

“Every time I would pick something up, when I was shopping with my parents, I’d look at the label and be like, ‘can Scott have this?’” Scott’s sister Jaris Johnson said.

Scott suffered from a severe dairy allergy since birth. He had had scares before.

Small traces of dairy would be enough to send him to the emergency room. That’s why his family says eating at a restaurant became rare, and it would always be done with caution.

“If it wasn’t right, we didn’t eat until his was right,” Steve Johnson said.

On a weekday morning in June 2014, the girls wanted to treat their mom and brother to breakfast at the Minnesota Nice Cafe.

“We didn’t have to wait for a table. They knew us by name,” Cindy Johnson said.

The family’s lawsuit explains what they say happened next. Cindy Johnson asked the server if the restaurant’s gluten-free pancakes were also dairy-free. The server reported that they were, after checking with the cook. Cindy then told the server the grill would have to be cleaned before her son’s pancakes were made. Scott’s mom and sisters watched him eat two pancakes, thinking they were fine.

“He had just finished and he said ‘we have to go now,’” Cindy Johnson said.

Scott forgot to bring his EpiPen and nebulizer to the restaurant — the tools he’d used before to open his lungs and help him through an allergic reaction.

When the Johnsons got home, it became clear they weren’t working, and Cindy called 911.

“I was eighteen miles off the highway when I got the call,” Steve Johnson said.

On a road construction job two hours away, Steve got word his son would be airlifted to Fargo, Minnesota.

“Hardest thing for me was I didn’t even get to talk to him,” Steve Johnson said.

Doctors told his parents their son had suffered such a severe anaphylactic reaction, and his heart had failed. Scott died three days later.

“Sixteen years. That’s too short,” Steve Johnson said.

“I miss him just as much today as the day after,” Cindy Johnson said.

The Johnsons are sharing their story with the hope it will stop something like this from happening again.

“Ask questions. If you’re not sure, don’t do it,” Steve Johnson said.

“Just one mistake can take someone’s life,” Cindy Johnson said.

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35 comments

    • Carrie

      Cathy check your facts there is a Fargo Minnesota and a Fargo North Dakota
      They are next to one another
      Don’t tell someone they are wrong until you check the facts

      • Mandi

        Carrie no – It’s Fargo, ND and the one NEXT to it is Moorhead, MN. It’s Fargo-Moorhead The only thing that separates the twin cities is the river (WHICH acts like the state boarder). There is NO Fargo, MN and only those who have watched the movie Fargo think there is. EVEN Minnesotans say there is NO Fargo, MN.

  • Leilani Kilpatrick

    It is very sad a sixteen year old died. I think I would have been even be more vigilant in looking at the ingredients and not necessarily trust a cook, that may not understand the seriousness of severe allergies. It is a shame that the parents did not have his epi-pen with him. If my son had such severe known allergy I would NEVER go any where without my epi-pen, never.! The parents were his health-care advocates and should have been prepared. As Cindy Johnson stated in the article, “Just that one mistake….”

    • sam

      I agreed with you the parten should have Efi-pen with him at all times and double check with the server when the order Came

    • Allie

      This is the most blatant case of victim blaming I’ve seen in a while. You’re attacking the parents for not being “vigilant” enough? It sounds like that family had their shit together, if you ask me. I have 21 food allergies, 3 of which I am ana to. Not only are food allergy children incredibly aware of their invisible disAbility, they learn very quickly how to protect themselves from fatal foods. Though I try to bring my Epi-Pen everywhere, it slips through the cracks.

      Do you ALWAYS remember your license when you drive?
      Well, if you get pulled over for having a cracked windshield, you deserve to be locked up. You forgot your license after all– “be more vigilant!”

      Haven’t you ever left the house and realized you forgot your wallet?
      Do you ever dig around in your purse for your keys?

      My point is that everyone forgets something important to going about their daily lives. You cannot blame these parents without having lived their situation. Having a child with an invisible disAbility in which their food (necessary for life) attacks them is draining. It’s a struggle between making sure everyone knows how severe the allergy is, and making your child feel normal. It’s an impossible task.

      The people to blame in this scenario is the restaurant. They gave false information when informed about food allergies, and that is unacceptable.
      Check your victim blaming, Leilani.

      • Jane

        Apples to oranges. If I had a life threatening reaction to leaving my wallet at home, you can be darn sure I’d never leave my wallet at home. It’s thin to sue an eating establishment that tried their very best. Now we’ll all have to sign waivers at iHop.

      • m c bealle

        Yes I always remember my license when I drive.

        Yes I’ve left the house without my wallet, but it isn’t necessary to save my life from… well, anything.

      • Tamytha

        I don’t think it’s fair to accuse people of “victim” blaming. I think what people are trying to point out is that the parents seem to be shifting blame. My heart aches for this family and even though I don’t agree with their decision to sue, I think it’s quite normal for people to want to shift their anger somewhere and blame someone for such a tragedy. However, I don’t understand why parents expect a business to be more responsible than themselves. Parents were fully aware of the severity of his allergies (surely more aware than anyone else); admittedly knew the dangers of eating out; put TRUST in a cook to clean the grill perfectly (the pancakes may not have had dairy…could have been on a less-than-perfectly-cleaned grill), YET they didn’t make the epi pen a priority. That’s puzzling to me. If this was my child, I’d like to think that I would have an epi pen at home, at school and in my purse at ALL TIMES. If I realized that I had forgotten my pen, I would not have taken the chance and eaten out. It’s just not worth it. Finally, I think your comparison of an epi pen to a driver’s license is a huge stretch. One is life-threatening, the other is not. Do we forget things? Absolutely. Do we sometimes forget things that can lead to the loss of life? Sadly, yes. (Think about how many children die from being locked in hot cars or lives lost due to fires from forgotten cigarettes.) However, as painful as it may be to admit it, parents have first and ultimate responsibility to take every step possible to secure the safety of their child. With that said, I do thing their story is a valuable reminder to all of us, that requests for dairy and/or gluten-free foods can be a matter of life and death.

  • Say What

    OK, I will say this sounds thin. Very thin. Your kid has a “severe” allergic reaction to dairy and you don’t carry an epi-pin to a restaurant? Then you order pancakes and trust a cook making $9/hour to sterilize the grill? Gimme a break. No way will the insurance company roll over on this one.

    • Mike

      Yeah, this echoes my thoughts as well. My heart goes out to the family of the boy, and also to the cook who believed his food was dairy free.

  • Drew

    @cathy. They were in Minnesota. In that part of Minnesota, the nearest metropolitan hospital to medivac to is Fargo, ND. Please read or listen to an entire story before commenting.

    • RonnieA

      Perhaps you should read the story before you comment as well. The story says that the father “was told that his son would be airlifted to Fargo, Minnesota. That’s what she was responding to.

  • t

    I work at a pizza place and nothing upsets me more than people who gave severe gluten allergies because flour is flying around all over the place and in the vents. If they had a reaction, we would get blamed and its not our fault. This is exactly like that. People don’t generally care if you have an allergy or not because they’re just getting a paycheck. Parents who are this stupid don’t deserve to have children.

  • tired worker

    I have Asthma and I never go anywhere without my inhaler and it is not as serious. I have a friend allegeric to insect venom and he carries his epi-pen and pills for it because 1 sting and he would die without the epi-pen. But it is your responsibilitiey to make sure he has his medicine and you should carry one also. I am sorry for the loss of your son, losing aloved one is hard.

  • kurt

    Horrible story and my heart goes out to the family. That said, the results of that day was a direct failure by you. With that type of allergy, there is NO WAY you go to a restaraunt without that pen. I have two daughters that allergic to dairy ( not nearly as severe ) and epi-pen is the first thing on our list. I understand the frustration with the cook/server but for reasons already stated in other posts,…you need to self-reflect rather than lash out to an establishment that all knew your name with a lawsuit.

  • Liz

    Thank you for posting this! Our 2 year old was treated for anaphylaxis on Sunday after eating pancakes at Café Flora that were made with peanut butter. There was no mention of peanut butter on the menu. It’s so important for restaurants to be forthcoming about what is in their food and train their staff to take allergies seriously.

    • Uhmmm?

      If you or child has a severe allergy, that is up to YOU to tell the kitchen. There is cross-contamination of things such as nuts and dairy. Putting it on the menu doesn’t change that.

  • dg54321

    Kid has an allergy issue so severe he can die without immediate treatment, and you “forgot” the epi-pen? I think that’s something any smart insurance agency is going to point out immediately to undermine any claims.

  • Jennifer

    I am a little confused.. they say the restaurant knew them by name. but they also had to asked if the pancakes were dairy free.. If i had been to a restaurant enough times for them to know my name I usually know the menu like the back of my hand. and If i had a dairy allergy, I would definitely know! & have my epi pen. I know this isn’t the families fault, but when you child has a life threatening health issue, it is always your number one concern.

  • Disgusted

    If your allergies are that severe what the heck are you doing eating out. Dairy is everywhere. It’s hard enough to keep it out of your home but almost EVERY restaurant uses dairy on their griddle. I don’t care how much you wash it that’s not coming off.

    In this case the victim is to blame in that they took their life in their own hands when they decided to let someone else make their food and now they want someone else to pay for their poor choices.

  • Vickie S

    I’m a nurse who has worked in allergy practices and am also the mother of a son with a anaphylaxis allergy to a certain group of foods. We always taught patients to get several EpiPens: one for home, one for Grandma’s house, one for the school, etc. Why didn’t mom have one in her purse? She was counting on her 16 year old to carry it? Even the most responsible teens have ditzy moments. I’d also like to add that many restaurants have non-English speaking cooks; perhaps he/she didn’t understand the question. This is a tragedy that a lawsuit can’t resolve. This isn’t a national chain that I’ve ever heard of, so likely your lawsuit (for a situation you had some accountability for) will likely put them out of business.

    • Chrissy Pierman

      i agree, my child has Type 1 Diabetes, you can bet there is a glucagon pen in my purse, in her diabetes kit, in her backpack, in the car, as well as multiple spots in the house, there is even one in a zip lock baggie on her wall above her bed held in place with a thumb tack, regardless of cost, this is the one item that may save my childs life one day and everyone including our 8 year old knows how to use it, you can’t take chances when your child has a medical condition that can very quickly lead to death.

  • CEDA

    Wow, so many self righteous people blaming the parents. I have a daughter with type 1 diabetes, many times forgot her insulin pen at home. Am I to blame for that? Don’t think so. One day she took a shower and forgot to connect her insulin pump. People forget thing even though their lives depend on it. Cut the patents some slack, they’ve been through enough. I hope all those blaming persons don’t ever have to go through something like this

    • Uhmmm?

      Actually if you forget it, you are, in fact, the one to blame. I’m severely, not even deathly, allergic to bees and I make sure I have that pen with me at all times. If I had a child, I would be the same way. Enough of the woe-is-me, “let’s blame others for our mistakes” crap. Take responsibility or suffer the consequences. It’s a tragedy, but this family needs to take ownership of their mistake instead of suing for money.

    • A-Mama

      Actually, Yes, you would be the one to blame for that. People need to take responsibility. I am so very sorry for this family’s loss, I cant even imagine the “what if’s” that will go through that mothers mind forever, but at the same time, her child has a deadly reaction to Dairy, there should have been an epi pen with her at all times and in the car and she should have checked with the son to make sure he had one. Yes, he was 16 and old enough to be responsible, but he was 16. A child and still her responsibility to take care of. I understand that you cant shelter a child from everything, they have to experience life, so I do not blame them for going out to eat, but the epi pen being left behind IS their fault.

  • SowderImagery

    If his allergy was a matter of life and death, I would not put the decision in the hands of a waiter/waitress.
    Seems a little odd to me.

  • Nick

    As the father of a 9 year old with severe milk and egg allergies I can empathize with the parents. I have certainly forgotten to bring an epipen with me before. That being said, I only trust chain restaurants who have established allergy free menus and protocols in place. I honestly don’t trust a server or cook in a mom and pop restaurant to know the 7 different ways milk could show up in an ingredient list without actually saying the word milk. It is really a matter of only going to places you have confidence in related to allergens – it is never worth the risk for a place you aren’t sure of. And to ‘Disgusted’ who said that children with allergies should never eat outside the house I am stunned by your narrow mindedness. Kids with allergies are human beings too who like to enjoy the same treats and experiences that their friends have (birthday parties, team parties, celebration meals with friends and family). To say that is unfair and cruel. Luckily there are many restaurants who take this matter seriously and will accommodate those will allergies (Red Robin and Olive Garden are two of our local chains that understand this).

  • msvette2u

    it’s very sad he passed away but i agree with others that this boy should have had an epi pen and his inhaler along with. After my son’s had two peanut exposures lately (he’s 22 and avoided peanuts his whole life but sh*t happens sometimes) I keep an Epi-pen in my purse, he keeps at least one on his person, and he has one in his home, we also have one in our home. That’s 4 Epi-Pens, because we understand the severity of the issue. Now my son is trained to dial 911 and if possible, take benadryl while waiting AND have his Epi-pen out and ready if he starts feeling his throat close. His girlfriend is also trained to do the same and administer the Epi-pen if necessary.
    These people should have sat right there at the diner and called 911. Why they left and went home instead of the hospital is beyond me…!! If they left at all it should have been en route to the hospital with 911 on the phone so the ambulance could intercept if the hospital is too far away.

    FTR if anyone has any allergies to anything, even if seemingly mild, you can always and should always call 911 in an exposure situation, because it may become life threatening quickly.