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HUNTINGTON PARK : AIDS Patient's Suit Accuses McDonald's

August 07, 1994|SIMON ROMERO

A former Huntington Park resident who was HIV-positive has filed a lawsuit against a local McDonald's, claiming that food poisoning he allegedly contracted there accelerated his illness into full-blown AIDS.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin next month in Los Angeles Superior Court in the suit filed by Arvin Peterson, 49, now of Seattle, who claims that his immune system rapidly deteriorated after eating a meal at the McDonald's outlet at 2584 E. Slauson Ave. on March 9, 1992.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, says that Peterson vomited and suffered 20 to 30 bouts of severe diarrhea after eating a McRib sandwich, french fries, ice cream and a soft drink. Peterson was taken the next day by ambulance to the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with shigella, a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through contaminated food.

Peterson's attorney, Natasha Roit, said Peterson, who is gay, did not have any other meals that day.

A spokeswoman for the corporate offices of McDonald's said she was not familiar with the suit and declined to comment. Michael Thomas, an attorney for the McDonald's branch named in the suit, contended that Peterson contracted shigella because he is gay, not because of the food he consumed.

"There is a higher incidence among homosexuals to contract shigella because of their lifestyle," said Thomas in a phone interview.

Lee Klosinski, program manager for HIV prevention and education at AIDS Project Los Angeles, disputed Thomas' statement.

"It's ridiculous for the defense to suggest that the fact he (Peterson) is gay is why he got shigella," said Klosinski. "I expect more from McDonald's."

Dr. Jonathan Kaplan, an AIDS specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said, "It's questionable how much more HIV-positive people get shigella than other parts of the population." The disease, he said, is most commonly transmitted through exposure to fecal matter.

Dr. Gary Cohan, an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA and an HIV specialist, said shigella is not "classically considered" to be a sexually transmitted disease, but that it could be spread through oral-anal contact. It still isn't known if a person who is HIV-positive and contracts shigella gets AIDS faster, said Cohan. "Forty percent of the people with AIDS may carry infectious organisms like shigella," said Cohan, citing a 1988 study on the subject.

Peterson's argument in the suit hinges on the claim that the bacteria was passed on by a restaurant employee who was not wearing gloves.

Thomas claims that the McRib sandwich that allegedly caused Peterson's illness was cooked in an acidic sauce that would have killed the shigella bacteria, and that the heat from cooking would also have destroyed it.

While hospitalized, Peterson suffered heart fibrillations and his T-cell count--which reflects the health of the body's immune system--dropped from between 500 and 600 to 160, the suit says. A T-cell count below 200 indicates that a person has AIDS, according to Dean Licitra, director of communications for AIDS Project L.A. Peterson's attorney said he was hospitalized for several days during his illness.

Following an inspection conducted by the Los Angeles County Health Department as a result of Peterson's illness, the McDonald's in question was cited for food preparation violations, as well as refuse and lavatory violations. Among citations issued in subsequent investigations were a failure to provide a probe thermometer for periodic testing of hot foods, cockroach infestation and failure to provide approved containers and covers for food storage.

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