Gluten in Soup at Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel Injured L.A. Man, Lawsuit Claims

A Los Angeles artist claims in a new lawsuit that he suffered "permanent" injury after eating a French onion soup with gluten at Grand Canyon's historic El Tovar Hotel.
A Los Angeles artist claims in a new lawsuit that he suffered "permanent" injury after eating a French onion soup with gluten at Grand Canyon's historic El Tovar Hotel. Alpha via Flickr
A Los Angeles artist visiting Grand Canyon suffered a "permanent" injury after consuming French onion soup at the El Tovar Hotel restaurant that a chef said was gluten-free, a new lawsuit claims.

Todd Serlin is suing Grand Canyon's concessionaire, Xanterra, for more than $100,000 following the 2016 incident, according to the suit filed last month.

Represented by the Scottsdale law firm Hymson Goldstein Pantiliat & Lohr, PLLC, Serlin filed a lawsuit in Coconino County Superior Court in early March, but the case was moved to federal court on Thursday.

As the now-federal complaint states, Serlin and his partner, Mark Bauer, planned to stay overnight at the historic El Tovar on December 27, 2016, while on vacation, and had dinner at the hotel's restaurant overlooking the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

Serlin has celiac disease, and is "extremely careful" not to eat anything with gluten. The autoimmune condition causes problems in the small intestine when gluten, a molecule in wheat products, is consumed.

Todd questioned the waitress several times to confirm that the French soup on the menu could be prepared gluten-free, the suit says. "The waitress reassured Todd that the soup could be prepared gluten-free by removing the crouton." She added that part of the kitchen was reserved for preparing foods for people with food allergies like celiac disease.

"Todd asked the waitress to confirm with the chef that there was no gluten in the base of the soup," and the chef did confirm it, the suit says.

Serlin then ordered a duck entree with rice and vegetables.

click to enlarge The El Tovar Hotel's restaurant. - DANIEL LOBO VIA FLICKR
The El Tovar Hotel's restaurant.
An hour or two later, Serlin felt ill: "His symptoms intensified into waves of nausea, radiating abdominal pain, a migraine headache, vomiting, and then diarrhea. It was later determined that the restaurant served Todd food that contained gluten."

The suit goes on to say that "Todd suffered severe and permanent personal injuries" from the experience, and "will continue to suffer, for an indefinite time, great pain, suffering, significant discomfort, and a loss of quality of life."

He'll need to pay for medical expenses for the rest of life because of that meal, according to the lawsuit.

Reached by phone on Saturday, Serlin, an L.A. painter whose colorful cubism-type pieces apparently sometimes sell for several thousand dollars a piece, told Phoenix New Times he could not comment on the lawsuit at this time.

His Arizona lawyer, Eddie Pantiliat, also declined comment and referred New Times to Xanterra. A public relations company used by Xanterra said to call Betsy O'Rourke, chief marketing officer for the company, but she didn't return messages on Monday.

Most people who avoid gluten don't have celiac disease, and instead avoid products with wheat with thoughts that doing so will improve their health. Several people around the country — with and without the disease — have sued in recent years after being served food with gluten that was supposed to be gluten-free, because a restaurant didn't offer gluten-free choices, or because the restaurant charged more for gluten-free food. The success of such lawsuits, though, is unclear. A student at Lesley University in Massachusetts received a $50,000 settlement in 2013 because the school didn't offer gluten-free food.

According to the Mayo Clinic's website on celiac disease, people with the condition may take up to a year or two to recover after they last eat gluten

"Full healing can take longer for adults, sometimes up to a year or two. People who have symptoms for quite a while may take longer to heal, and some never completely recover," the site states.

(UPDATE: As of June 2019, the case was set for a settlement conference on September 23 in Phoenix.)
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern