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Boy with gluten allergy sues after restaurant refuses to let him eat own food

Should a child with a severe gluten allergy be allowed to eat his own homemade food inside a restaurant?
The case involves a boy who was on a school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which included dinner at a restaurant on the grounds of the historic area.
The case involves a boy who was on a school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which included dinner at a restaurant on the grounds of the historic area.Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

The legal row started over a homemade chicken sandwich.

A Maryland boy on a school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg wanted to eat his own food inside a restaurant to avoid triggering his severe gluten allergy. But the restaurant refused, offering to prepare a gluten-free meal instead.

Not trusting the tavern could do the job, the boy declined. A recent study found about one-third of restaurant dishes advertised as “gluten-free” on the menu actually do contain gluten.

As his classmates ate their meals inside the tavern, he ended up having to eat his homemade sandwich outside. His family sued, alleging Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and discriminated against the boy because of his disability.

The case was initially dismissed, but the U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last week ruled it can go to trial and be decided by a jury.

One of the judges dissented, calling it a “terrible rule” that forces restaurants to allow patrons to bring in outside food prepared “in who knows what conditions.”

Colonial Williamsburg also said it was disappointed and was considering its options.

“We have a long and successful track record of preparing gluten-free meals for our guests and believe doing so is a reasonable accommodation, as noted by the dissenting judge,” said Joe Straw, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in a statement to TODAY.

But Allergic Living magazine said the language of the decision was "already being hailed as a victory for those with medically necessary diets."

The National Restaurant Association declined to comment.

The case involves an 11-year-old boy, identified as J.D., who is on a strict gluten-free diet because he suffers from constipation, stomach pain and other symptoms when he eats gluten, according to court documents.

His doctor testified a gluten-free diet is “medically necessary” for the boy and that J.D.’s family history is positive for either celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

In May 2017, J.D. went on a school field trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which included dinner at Shields Tavern, a restaurant that’s owned and operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

J.D.’s father, who came along as a chaperone on the trip, told the waitress not to bring any food and began making a gluten-free chicken sandwich for the boy from a cooler he brought along. He was then told he couldn’t bring in outside food because it was a health code violation in Virginia.

The restaurant makes two exceptions to its no-outside-food policy: Parents can bring baby food for their infants and customers can bring cakes and wine for events if they pay a plating and corkage fee.

When the head chef offered to personally make a gluten-free meal of baked chicken and potatoes for J.D., the boy and his dad declined because of previous bad experiences at other restaurants that left J.D. sick. But to be able to eat his homemade gluten-free meal, he'd have to leave the premises.

As J.D. “began to cry,” he and his dad went to eat outside for about 30 minutes and then returned to the restaurant.

In its 2-1 decision reviving the case last week, the U.S. Court Of Appeals said it couldn’t determine if the restaurant fully accounted for the boy's disability. It also noted the district court incorrectly overlooked testimony that described how J.D. repeatedly became sick after eating “purportedly gluten-free meals” prepared by restaurants in the past.

But the dissenting judge said the restaurant’s offer of a gluten-free meal prepared in-house was enough to accommodate the boy and that allowing patrons to ignore the restaurant’s menu would disrupt its business and atmosphere.

“It imposes a vague and unmanageable standard on restaurants everywhere,” he wrote.

The case can now go to trial.