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No Criminal Charges for Quebec Waiter over Man’s Severe Allergic Reaction

Simon-Pierre Canuel suffered an anaphylactic reaction and fell into a coma after being served salmon instead of steak. Photo: Radio-CanadaUpdated Sept. 15: A Quebec waiter who served salmon tartare to a customer with a life-threatening fish allergy will not face criminal negligence charges.

Earlier this year, police in Sherbrooke, Que. arrested the server on suspicion of criminal negligence, but after an investigation, prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence to support the case.

“The Crown prosecutor in the case in Sherbrooke came to the conclusion the person targeted by police did not commit any criminal infraction,” said René Verret, a spokesperson for the Crown.

Simon-Pierre Canuel says he ordered steak tartare at a Sherbrooke restaurant in May, and that he informed the waiter of his severe allergy both when he was seated and when he ordered. He also asked the waiter to speak with the kitchen staff about his allergy.

After taking a bite of his food, Canuel immediately realized he had been served salmon – not steak tartare – and was rushed to hospital, where he reportedly suffered cardiac arrest and went into a coma for two days.

“The server had almost killed me,” Mr. Canuel told The Globe and Mail newspaper. “I know it [was] an error, but that error had almost taken my life.”

The case made headlines around the world, because it could have ramifications for allergy patients and restaurants across Canada and beyond. The Quebec restaurant association also weighed in, saying that if the waiter was charged, allergic patrons could have a hard time getting served.

The story generated debate in the allergy community. Some people agreed that the waiter should be prosecuted, while others argued that people with severe food allergies are ultimately responsible for their own safety and should always carry an emergency auto-injector containing epinephrine in case of a reaction. (Canuel said he had forgotten his auto-injector in his car.)

Canadian criminal lawyer Frank Addario says criminal negligence is a very high bar to meet, because the prosecution has to show the accused considered the risk of his actions, understood the risk, and willfully chose to go ahead regardless.

Canuel’s lawyer François Daigle says his client still plans to pursue a civil case against the waiter and the restaurant, as well as a separate case against a Quebec media outlet that implied Canuel makes a habit of suing restaurants. (Daigle says there is no evidence to support the claim, but the media outlet would not offer a retraction.)

“This guy had a heart attack and spent two days in a coma – and people think he ate salmon on purpose?” he says. “It’s incredible.”

The lawyer himself successfully sued a Montreal restaurant two years ago after his son, who is seriously allergic to eggs, was served a hamburger that contained egg — even though Daigle had clearly informed the staff of his allergy. He experienced vomiting and a racing heartbeat, and was later awarded $5,500.

Daigle expects the award in the Canuel case will be significantly higher because his reaction was so severe, and could have lasting effects. He’s confident his client will win his lawsuit.

“In civil litigation you just have to prove the probability that it happened, that there was neglect or a fault,” he explains. “And how can you not demonstrate a fault when the wrong meal is served? It’s very clear.”

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