Health & Medicine

Family sues city after girl’s peanut-allergy death at Camp Sacramento

The parents of a 13-year-old girl with a peanut allergy who went into anaphylactic shock and died after eating a nighttime snack at Camp Sacramento have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

Dr. Louis Giorgi and his wife, Joanne, charged in the suit, filed Friday in Sacramento Superior Court, that information had been conveyed “in writing and in person numerous times” to camp operators about their daughter Natalie’s peanut allergy. The girl was “conscientious about avoiding foods that contained peanuts or peanut by-products” and there were other children at the camp who shared the same allergy – a fact known to camp personnel, according to the lawsuit.

“Obviously it’s something we find no joy in pursuing,” Louis Giorgi said of the lawsuit, “but it is consistent with our approach to accomplish the goal to help raise awareness of people, to pay attention to this and know it can be fatal. We need to take simple steps to protect all of our children. There can never be another Natalie. And there should never be another Natalie. It can be prevented.”

Natalie Giorgi went into anaphylactic shock July 26 after eating a Rice Krispies Treat during a hula hoop contest on her family’s last night of a four-day vacation at the popular, city-owned Camp Sacramento facility near Lake Tahoe that has been visited by thousands of families since it opened in the 1930s.

According to the lawsuit, the snack contained peanut butter that had been mixed into a marshmallow filling “in such a way as to be visually undetectable” and also “difficult or impossible to determine that the treat contained peanut butter by taste.”

During an interview in the office of their attorney, Roger A. Dreyer, the Giorgis said that their daughter had been diagnosed with the peanut allergy at age 3 when she had a mild reaction to either hazelwood or macadamia nuts. They said that since the diagnosis, she never again displayed any symptoms of the allergy until the night she died.

During the hula hoop competition, the parents left the main dining hall for a moment to get some cereal for the next day’s breakfast, when their daughter ran up to them and said, “I ate something. I ate a Rice Krispies Treat, and it it didn’t taste right.”

Louis Giorgi, a urologist and former Navy flight surgeon, always kept two EpiPens for just such an occasion, to inject his daughter with epinephrine to combat the allergic reaction if symptoms appeared. For 20 minutes, the parents sat with her their daughter, who at first appeared to be fine. Then she told them, “Oh my God, I might get sick,” and she vomited and almost immediately stopped breathing.

Louis Giorgi injected Natalie with the epinephrine, but “she didn’t respond, so I gave her another EpiPen (dose) right away,” Giorgi said.

The injection failed to stop the fatal allergic reaction.

“She was suffocating,” Giorgi said. “And she was frantic. There was terror in her eyes.”

The couple had taken their daughter into a nurse’s station, where Dr. Giorgi broke open a medicine cabinet to get a third EpiPen.

“It just didn’t work,” he said.

Paramedics arrived but were unable to revive the girl.

Dreyer, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said the city has not provided information on its protocol for preparing and labeling food for people with fatal allergies.

“The family is prosecuting this case civilly in an effort to educate the public and make certain that the necessary steps are taken to keep children safe,” Dreyer said. “The bottom line is, if you don’t have the civil justice system to hold corporations and public entities accountable, then people are victimized.”

Attorneys for the city of Sacramento did not return calls for comment Friday.

The lawsuit said that in the family’s previous visits to Camp Sacramento, the staff at the facility on U.S. Highway 50 in El Dorado County either didn’t make anything with peanuts or peanut butter or clearly marked the foods as containing the ingredients.

Joanne Giorgi said the family of six had been to Camp Sacramento three previous times and loved the programs for the kids, the hiking, the friendship and the trips to Pope Beach at nearby Lake Tahoe and everything else the facility offers.

Before Natalie’s death, “We were just busy with life,” Joanne Giorgi said. “We were blessed. We were very fortunate. We recognize we had a lot of blessings. And we have fun kids. They crack me up. They each are unique and they each are a significant gift.”

Natalie competed in gymnastics and loved school, her family and her friends, her parents said. She was passionate about things such as the environment and her science fair projects, according to her mother.

The loss of the red-headed girl who was born premature at 29 weeks has been devastating to the family.

“You get up every morning because you have these three other remarkable kids,” she said. “I tell people I have four children. I don’t just have three. But the fourth is not here for us to laugh with, to take to gymnastics practice. At the core of your soul, you miss that presence, because a piece of you is gone.”

To “fill this emptiness” left by her daughter’s absence, Joanne Giorgi said, she and her husband have become activists in bringing the issue of food allergies to the public.

They’ve created the Natalie Marie Giorgi Foundation to increase public awareness about food allergies. They’ve also established connections with the Stanford Alliance for Food Allergy Research and the Food Allergy Research & Education group out of McLean, Va.

Joanne Giorgi testified earlier this month at a state legislative hearing on a bill to make California schools stock EpiPens and train campus personnel on how to administer the medicine.

“We’re trying to share her message,” Joanne Giorgi said. “I know it would be important to her.”

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