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Food Allergies

Diner Who Almost Died in Salmon Allergy Mix-Up Suffers Backlash

simon2Simon-Pierre Canuel shields his face to prevent further public hounding.

It was a story that made headlines around the globe: a waiter in Quebec, Canada was arrested after he served salmon to a patron with severe seafood allergies, nearly costing him his life.

Now in an exclusive interview with Allergic Living, that customer, Simon-Pierre Canuel, opens up about the two ordeals he suffered: first his near-fatal anaphylactic reaction, then local media attacks and public backlash so severe that he felt forced to change his phone number, close his social media accounts and essentially go underground.

On May 29, the 35-year-old health sciences student was dining with his partner, a resident doctor, at a tapas restaurant called Le Tapageur in the city of Sherbrooke, where they ordered four tapas dishes including beef tartare. But despite warning the server of his allergies, they were served salmon tartare. Because the restaurant was dark, and the salmon was served in small bites, the couple didn’t notice the mistake until it was too late.

“When I started to react, I had difficulty breathing. It was hard to swallow, and I was coughing. I couldn’t get air,” says Canuel, his voice trembling. To make matters worse, his EpiPen auto-injector had fallen out of his pocket in the car, which was parked a short distance away. His boyfriend said he would get the car and drive him to the hospital.

“I said, ‘No, call an ambulance. I’m not doing well.’ I remember seeing him on the phone, and I saw a woman approach to help me,” says Canuel. “After that I don’t remember anything.”

His reaction was so severe that, within minutes of taking a bite, Canuel was unconscious, in full-blown anaphylactic shock, and his partner was working to keep his airways open until paramedics arrived. In hospital, he was eventually stabilized – but the next day, after being removed from an epinephrine drip, he relapsed and went back into shock.

“I was holding my boyfriend’s hand and I said, ‘Can you call my family? I don’t think I’m going to survive,’” Canuel recalls on the phone from his home in Gatineau, near Ottawa. About a minute later, Canuel went into cardiac arrest and was later told his heart had stopped. He says the medical staff resuscitated him, but as his airways were again closing, he was intubated and put into a medically induced coma for two days.

When ultimately released from hospital, Canuel was badly shaken; ever since, he has suffered from insomnia, nightmares and panic attacks, one of which was significant enough to land him back in hospital, and has experienced phobia about food.

But the powerful allergic reaction and post-traumatic response weren’t the only hardships Canuel has endured. When the story hit the media, instead of being sympathetic, many people attacked him online, accusing him of trying to ruin the young waiter’s life or to cash in through a lawsuit. Francois Meunier, vice president of the Quebec Restaurant Association, even suggested that if the waiter was charged, restaurateurs might refuse to serve allergic patrons.

In an odd twist, Canuel’s ex-partner in France also came forward and claimed that Canuel had a history of being litigious. Canuel and his lawyer say the claims are patently false and the result of an ongoing personal dispute, and that Canuel has never taken legal action against a restaurant. He says he didn’t even develop his seafood allergies until 2011, three years after he left the relationship in France.

Although he has received many messages of sympathy and support, the wave of vitriol was so severe that Canuel changed his telephone and shut down his social media accounts.

Around the same time, Canuel went to eat in a Montreal restaurant and, as always, informed the server of his serious allergies – but instead of showing concern, she laughed. Canuel asked her if she realized it could be dangerous.

“She said, ‘It’s true, like that idiot who lodged a complaint against the waiter,’” recounts Canuel. “I looked at her straight in the eye and said, ‘Madame, that idiot who complained about the waiter is me.’” The server apologized, but Canuel says her response is indicative of the cavalier attitudes many people still have toward serious allergies.

Despite the arrest, in September prosecutors announced they would not lay charges against the waiter, since there wasn’t enough evidence to support a criminal negligence charge, which legal experts say is an extremely high bar to meet. In a civil suit, however, negligence is far easier to prove.

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

In addition to a civil case against the restaurant and the waiter, Canuel has launched legal action against a Quebec radio station and host over the host’s assertion that Canuel had sued other restaurants in the past, and the station’s failure to either substantiate or retract the claim.

Canuel emphasizes that he is not going to court to make money, or to make life difficult for anyone. He also recognizes that accidents can happen, and that cross-contamination is a real danger when eating in restaurants. In this case, however, Canuel alleges that the waiter never even notified the kitchen of his allergy, despite repeated requests to do so. What he really wants is for people to take allergies more seriously, and to take reasonable steps to prevent reactions like the one that almost took his life.

“I’m not asking them to be doctors and to know what to do if I have an allergic reaction. I’m asking them to pay attention to my allergy, and I’m asking them to serve me what I order,” says Canuel, adding that the police investigation found the waiter had actually ordered salmon tartare in the computer system, so the mix-up was not the fault of the kitchen. “That’s all I’m asking. But he didn’t do it.”

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