Seattle law firm sues El Toro following Tacoma-area norovirus outbreak

An electron micrograph of human norovirus.

Seattle law firm Marler Clark filed a complaint for personal injuries against El Toro Mexican restaurants in Pierce County Superior Court Friday on behalf of Ericka Cecchi.

Cecchi is a Tacoma resident who is one more than 400 diners who reported becoming ill after eating at two El Toro restaurants in the Tacoma area.

El Toro’s executive manager Ruben Arias said via email message Friday that he had not yet been served with the lawsuit and that it was premature to comment as he had not yet read the lawsuit.

The news comes at the end of a tumultuous week for the locally-owned Mexican restaurant chain.

Illness reports began trickling in at the end of last week and then poured into the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department by mid-week. The health department closed the El Toro Westgate location Monday, allowing it to reopen Tuesday after deep cleaning.

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Wednesday, the health department closed down the chain's University Place location after receiving 10-15 illness complaints for that site. That location reopened Thursday.

The restaurant also voluntarily closed its other three restaurants in Parkland, Puyallup and Lakewood to conduct a deep cleaning as a safety precaution.

The health department continues to investigate and is still interviewing more diners who have complained of illness. The number of diners reporting illness might increase. The health department still does not know the exact cause of the outbreak or if they are related at the two restaurants, but the common factor in all the reports is dining at an El Toro restaurant.

The Marler Clark law firm specializes in food-poisoning cases. William Marler, of the firm, is probably best known for representing the plaintiffs in the Jack-in-the-Box E.coli food-poisoning lawsuit in 1993. In that incident, about 700 across four states were sickened.

Since then, Marler has represented clients in a number of other high-profile foodborne-illness cases and often is quoted as a food-safety expert.

Cecchi told The News Tribune she became ill after dining Jan. 2 at the Westgate El Toro at 5716 N. 26th St. Her meal included chips, salsa and steak fajitas, she said.

She said she began experiencing symptoms consistent with norovirus on Jan. 4: severe vomiting, diarrhea, fever and chills and a headache.

The vomiting is gone, but she is still experiencing the other symptoms.

It’s not the first time Cecchi has had norovirus-like symptoms. She experienced the same set of symptoms following a cruise vacation in March, she said.

She went to the doctor for a few medical tests to rule out several illnesses, but not norovirus.

Following that doctor visit on Jan. 5, she saw news reports about the El Toro norovirus outbreak and had an epiphany.

“I yelled, ‘Mom! I know what made me sick,’” Cecchi said.

She called her doctor again and her doctor wanted a stool sample.

The lab results were positive for norovirus, she said. She also provided the News Tribune with a screenshot of the positive test result.

She said she’s equal parts nervous about her health and angry she was sickened from a meal at a restaurant.