R.I. Supreme Court says supermarket not liable for man’s allergic reaction to fish

By: - March 31, 2023 12:00 pm

A man who bought cod and tuna at the Bristol Stop & Shop and later had to seek treatment in an emergency room for what he said was an allergic reaction to salmon prepped in the same area lost his appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — A customer who sued Stop & Shop for negligence after he purchased fish and later required emergency room treatment for a severe allergic reaction has lost his appeal to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The state’s high court on March 23 upheld a 2021 Providence Superior Court ruling in favor of Stop & Shop, noting that the plaintiff did not disclose his allergy to the clerk at the seafood counter in the Bristol store in 2016. The plaintiff also admitted that he left the area to continue his shopping before returning to pick up his order.

Approximately 0.4% of the U.S. population has an allergy to fish, according to one study. (Getty photo)

Plaintiff Michael G. Meeks said at a 2020 deposition that he saw the clerk who waited on him slicing salmon for another customer while wearing gloves before placing his order for cod and tuna. At the time, Meeks knew he had an allergy to salmon but did not inform Stop & Shop employees.

Upon returning home after shopping, Meeks said he proceeded to prepare some of the fish he had just purchased. Within 20 minutes of his starting to eat the fish, he claimed he began to have an allergic reaction, “beginning with [his] skin turning red, starting to heat up,” according to court documents.

Meeks testified that he called 911 “because [he] knew what was coming, which was the closing of [his] throat,” court documents report.

He was taken to Rhode Island Hospital for treatment. Afterward, a doctor specializing in allergies found Meeks had a moderate allergy to cod and told him to “stay away from all fish, all shellfish, everything.”

Meeks argued his allergic reaction was caused by cross-contamination from salmon. He submitted an affidavit from a doctor who is a specialist in allergy and immunology. The specialist said that based on Meeks’ history of allergic reactions to salmon, it was the likely cause through cross-contamination. The affidavit was not notarized, however.

Superior Court Judge Richard Raspallo dismissed the case in a bench decision in 2021, observing that the case was relying on the plaintiff’s own beliefs and reports.

Associate Justice William P. Robinson III wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion affirming Raspallo’s judgment.

“There is no basis for us to rule that the alleged presence of an undisclosed allergy creates the existence of a duty on the part of Stop & Shop to a particular customer,”  Robinson wrote.

Around 0.4% of the U.S. population is allergic to fish, according to a study led by researchers at  the Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Quite apart from that fatal shortcoming, we have grave difficulty ascertaining how the facts in the record could provide a basis for finding liability on the part of Stop & Shop.

– Rhode Island Supreme Court Associate Justice William P. Robinson III

Beth Winthrop, a nutrition professor at the University of Rhode Island and food allergy expert for MenuTrinfo, said that while the supermarket should have committed to best practices, Meeks should have made clerks aware of his allergy.

“It’s a shared responsibility,” she said. “If you’re expecting the person to do things more safely you need to communicate that need.”

For any future shopping, she recommends a food allergic person select plain cod out of the store’s frozen section or a local fish market.

Stop & Shop declined to comment on the ruling. Court documents note the supermarket called for the dismissal because Meeks had “knowingly and voluntarily assumed any and all risks” when purchasing his order.

“Quite apart from that fatal shortcoming, we have grave difficulty ascertaining how the facts in the record could provide a basis for finding liability on the part of Stop & Shop,” Robinson wrote.

Neither Meeks nor his attorney could be reached for comment.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.