Hours after dining on salmon and salad during the 2014 state NAACP conference at a Redwood City luxury hotel, Sacramento community leaders were among the 127 people who grew seriously ill, with some vomiting in the lobby and suffering diarrhea, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The suit alleges that the Hotel Sofitel San Francisco Bay was negligent by serving fish contaminated with norovirus toxin that caused the illness.
Mark Harris, attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the hotel failed to use dishwater hot enough to kill the virus. The suit also alleges the hotel failed to help those so sick they couldn’t leave the hotel without medical assistance.
Harris is seeking “multi-millions” on behalf of the individuals who became ill, he said.
Alice Huffman, Sacramento-based president of the California-Hawaii state NAACP, said the illness struck most of her group the morning after dining on the infected food as guests were attempting to check out of the hotel on a Sunday. Without access to their rooms, some guests became so ill they were unable to move from the hotel lobby. A conference member called 911.
Twelve people were taken to a hospital, including a hearing-impaired 5-year-old girl, Harris said. The oldest victim was 83, he said.
The suit alleges that the hotel was sanctioned two times for food safety issues prior to the NAACP event. In 2008, San Mateo County Health System found “major violations associated with poisoning by contaminated food” during an event for the Redwood Chamber of Commerce, it said. It also alleges a food-poisoning outbreak at a Johnson & Johnson event shortly after that.
Huffman, who was ill for two days from the outbreak, said Tuesday that during the incident in the hotel lobby, “Older people had just sunk in their chairs, they couldn’t even move. Kids were vomiting in the wastepaper baskets.”
AccorHotels, the parent company for Sofitel, responded Tuesday that it had confidence it would prevail in the suit.
“We respect the plaintiffs’ right to pursue legal action, even though we are confident their allegations will not hold up in court,” said AccorHotels spokeswoman Sandra Pinto Duhamel. “The safety and welfare of our guests and staff are always our highest priority and our hotel staff went to considerable lengths to provide aid both during and after the incident.”
Harris said that the suit is seeking money to cover medical bills, lost wages and emotional distress. The plaintiffs have unsuccessfully attempted to settle the claim for two years, said Harris.
Former Oakland Mayor and Assemblyman Elihu Harris was also one of those sickened and briefly went into a coma from the infection, said Mark Harris, who is not related.
The attorney filed a separate suit in that instance and won a “six figure settlement” for the former legislator.
The new suit also alleges that race may have played a factor in the hotel’s response. The majority of the NAACP guests are black.
Huffman said that during the incident, “no one from the hotel made any overtures to help ... I think they didn’t really treat us with dignity.”
Duhamel disputed the NAACP’s claim of discrimination.
“Our hotel staff went to great lengths to assist all those impacted both during and after the incident,” she said in a statement. “Any attempt to make this a racial issue is inexcusable.”