Back in October 2010, Chris and Heather Gage were 120 miles away from their home in Bridgeport, NE, and decided to dine at the Old Country Buffet in Cheyenne, WY. Chris Gage was medically compromised going into the restaurant, but when he left, he was infected with Salmonella bacteria, which left him forever damaged. Gage’s reaction to the pathogen was extreme, and he and his wife went on to sue the Old Country Buffet (now known as Ovation Brands) in 2014. This past week, the couple won an approximately $11.37-million judgment against the defendants in Wyoming federal court. This case was unusual because all the time that the Gages and their attorneys sought justice in the courtroom, the defense table remained vacant. Ovation Brands, one the largest restaurant chains in the country, did not show up to defend itself. It won’t say why. Court documents show that it was properly served notice of the lawsuit. Not showing up in court after being served notice that you are being sued can put you in default. After that, the plaintiffs may put on evidence for assessing damages without any of it being contested. Then the judge is free to make a default judgement. “The lesson from this case is that if you are sued, get a lawyer,” says Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler (who is also publisher of Food Safety News). After U.S. District Court Judge Scott Skavdahl entered a default order against Ovation Brands in August, the only thing left to be decided was the amount of the judgment. In addition to the $641,936.50 he had earlier entered, the judge added $10,729,536, for a final judgment amount of about $11.37 million. Now the Gages just have to collect from defendants they’ve not seen from a restaurant that has closed and from a restaurant chain that has changed its name and gone bankrupt and been sold to another restaurant group during the past five years while Gage’s illness left him fighting for his life. Being from out of town, the Gages probably did not know that others in the Cheyenne area were sickened from eating at the Old Country Buffet during September 2010. Those illnesses brought the Laramie County Health Department out to the buffet-style restaurant for an inspection on Sept. 30, 2010, where 18 violations were discovered. The Gages decided to eat there the following day. But while others might have been sick for a week from the restaurant’s Salmonella contamination, Chris Gage was what doctors call “a particularly vulnerable individual” because of a pre-existing condition. The military veteran was treated in 1997 for gastroesophageal reflux disease, otherwise referred to as GERD. The surgery was successful, and Gage then had no more symptoms before he was infected with Salmonella in 2010. What happened after that nearly killed him. The Salmonella infection brought on gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, and it became even worse. Gage could not go to the bathroom or walk on his own, hold down water, or stop his vomiting and dry-heaving. Gage was taken by ambulance to the Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, NE, where doctors found him in total renal failure from Salmonella infection and resulting septic shock. Doctors providing court testimony said that Gage’s condition before the Salmonella infection was “stable, controlled and asymptomatic” and that “to a reasonable degree of medical certainly,” the food poisoning was the cause of his future medical problems. Before September 2010, Gage was functioning completely independently. Salmonella left Gage with damage to the pons region of the brain, which is the area responsible for controlling eye movements, balance, arm and leg movements, fine motor skills, respiration, nausea and vomiting, expression of emotions and speech and language. “Since the Salmonella poisoning, Mr. Gage has suffered from persistent nausea, vomiting, balance and coordination issues, cognitive deficits, emotional control issues, and speech and language problems,” Dr. Jason D. Walsh, a Scottsbluff surgeon, said in a declaration summarizing Gage’s medical history and condition. At about the same time that the first default judgement was entered representing Gage’s out-of-pocket medical expenses, Food Management Partners acquired Ovation Brands. The 350-unit restaurant chain was said to have 18,000 employees and $900 million in annual revenues. Its six brands, including Old Country, are run out of Greenville, SC, with a corporate support center in Eagan, MN. Terms of the Food Management Partners acquisition of Ovation were not disclosed. Ovation Brands has declined to comment on the default judgment.
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