Patron's Death Puts Ruby Tuesday in Hot Seat

Restaurant Chain Suggests Allergic Customer Made Bad Choice

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Ruby Tuesday is taking heat over what's interpreted by some as a mishandled response to a patron's death after eating in one of its restaurants.
The response from Ruby Tuesday over a patron's death after eating at one of its restaurants didn't go over well in the blogosphere.
The response from Ruby Tuesday over a patron's death after eating at one of its restaurants didn't go over well in the blogosphere.

Rodney Hawkins, a rapper in Lovejoy, Ga., with a severe shellfish allergy, died from anaphylactic shock after consuming Chicken Oscar at the restaurant -- a dish his wife said was served to him by mistake. But the chain, which conducted its own investigation, denied this, maintaining that despite his allergy, Mr. Hawkins did in fact order Chicken Oscar, which is described on the menu as "tender jumbo lump crab meat with asparagus tips and lemon-butter sauce atop a fresh-grilled chicken breast."

Spokesman defends restaurant
"This is a tragic situation and our sympathy is with Mr. Hawkins' family," Ruby Tuesday spokesman Rick Johnson said in a statement. "We are aware and very sensitive to the fact that some of our guests have allergies to certain foods, and our menus clearly describe the content of the dishes we serve." Mr. Johnson added that the crab meat is served as a topping on the dish and not hidden beneath a chicken breast.

"Victim-blaming is a dangerous business," said Eric Dezenhall, chief executive of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis-management firm. "Any implication that the customer brought the misfortune on themselves is likely to be met with intense hostility in the community and in the media unless the act committed is so egregious that it's obviously the fault of the customer."

Indeed, the response from Ruby Tuesday, which has not engaged a crisis firm, didn't go over well in the blogosphere. "Methinks someone is lying," wrote Backbroken at Consumerist. "They've now turned an honest mistake into an ugly 'he said/she said' dispute. Shame on you, Ruby Tuesday."

Mr. Dezenhall added that news stories and follow-ups on these kinds of tragedies generally focus on how the company handled the crisis. "No matter what a company does, the reports are always that they mishandled it," he said. "That's just a reality of the business."

Widow denies claims
Moreover, the issue doesn't look like it will go away any time soon. "Mrs. Hawkins does not agree with statements represented in the media that her husband had ordered a dish containing shellfish," Joseph Leonardi, a lawyer representing the Hawkins family, said in a statement. "She hopes that Ruby Tuesday accepts responsibility and does whatever is necessary to see that this does not happen again."

Mr. Leonardi said that he has not been retained for legal action against the chain, although he fully expects the family to sue at some point.

It's been a rough year at Ruby Tuesday. The company reported yesterday that same-store sales were down 10% for the fourth quarter and for the full year at company-owned restaurants.
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