Family Sues Panera For Serving Allergic Child Grilled Cheese Sandwich With Peanut Butter

A Massachusetts family has sued Panera Bread for including a dollop of peanut butter in a grilled cheese sandwich they bought for their allergic daughter, in an incident that resulted in the young lass spending the night in the hospital.

As the Boston Globe reports, on January 28, Elissa Russo of Natick wanted to order a grilled cheese sandwich for her then-5-year-old daughter, whose name has not been disclosed. Being the parent of a child with a peanut allergy (her daughter was 18 months old when she was diagnosed), Mrs. Russo was and is diligent about making sure the foods she buys for her daughter don’t contain peanut products.

Using Panera’s online ordering system, Mrs. Russo double-checked and triple-checked to make sure the grilled cheese sandwich she was planning on buying for her daughter didn’t contain peanut products. She said that, when ordering, she indicated twice that the sandwich was for a child with peanut allergies.

The girl’s father, John Russo, says that when he got home from work and ate with his family, they discovered to their horror that the young girl had bitten into a sandwich that contained peanut butter. The family, who always carries an epinephrine pen (“Epipen”) with them at all times, called their pediatrician.

At first, the girl wasn’t showing any symptoms, so the pediatrician recommended giving the girl Benadryl. However, after the girl vomited up the Benadryl, the doctor told the family to take the girl to the emergency room right away.

The girl’s family say that the incident caused her to panic, and she kept repeating, “Am I going to die?”

At the hospital, the girl seemed to be on the mend until she was just about to be released — that is, until she suddenly broke out in hives. Staff gave her a shot of epinephrine, and she wound up staying overnight and being discharged the next day.

When Mr. Russo called Panera Bread for an explanation, he was less than satisfied with the response he got. The manager was “extremely apologetic,” and blamed the mix-up on a communication issue. The manager said at the time that an employee likely saw the word “peanut” on the order and added peanut butter to the sandwich — an explanation Mr. Russo doesn’t find convincing.

“[The online order twice said] ‘peanut allergy.’ Did they just see ‘peanut’ and not the ‘allergy’ part? Is this somebody doing this on purpose? Because it’s two freakin’ tablespoons of peanut butter on this sandwich and it’s a grilled cheese.”

The girl’s parents have filed suit against Panera Bread and a group of New England-area Panera franchises, alleging that the company “engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices by adding peanut butter to the plaintiff’s grilled cheese sandwich knowing that [she] has a life-threatening peanut allergy.”

Further, the suit alleges that less than a month after the Russo girl’s incident, another child had a similar peanut butter incident when ordering a sandwich from a Wayland, Massachusetts Panera Bread. Both locations are owned by the same franchise group named in the lawsuit.

Mitchell Roberts, a spokesman for the franchise group named in the lawsuit, was incredulous that such a thing could have happened.

“They’re saying there were two different cases at two different restaurants of ours where someone ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and said they had a peanut allergy and they were served grilled cheese sandwiches with peanut butter in them? That doesn’t sound feasible.”

As of this writing, it is not clear what damages the family is seeking from Panera Bread.

[Image via Shutterstock/Susan Montgomery]