By Karen de Sa
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
The owners of a Redwood City Mexican restaurant will pay $55,000 in fines and make sure that employees wash their hands as part of an agreement struck with the San Mateo County district attorney after a major food poisoning outbreak.
Martin and Isabel Toro -- owners of the Middlefield Road spot once called Viva Mexico -- do not admit they caused any illnesses while running a restaurant where 250 patrons got sick during several days in October. But according to a final judgment filed Thursday in the county's Superior Court, they pledge to keep their restaurant food fit "for human consumption."
The prosecutor found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and the Toros have waived their right to appeal.
"This is a very serious case and we're always concerned about the potential for public harm," deputy district attorney John Wilson said. "In this case, there was great public harm."
The Toros' attorney, Anthony Gibbs, said they have accepted "from day one" that state health and safety laws were violated in the restaurant.
"But none of the violations we've admitted to medically or forensically would have resulted in any sickness to any of our customers," Gibbs said.
The couple must pay a $50,000 civil penalty and reimburse $5,000 to the San Mateo County Environmental Health Department.
"Leave me in peace," Martin Toro told a reporter Friday in Spanish. "You have already hurt my business."
The Redwood City couple face a growing number of claims and lawsuits -- and a dwindling clientele at Viva Mexico, now renamed Los Potrillos.
Other things will change after the settlement agreement. The Toros will attend food safety classes, keep an accurate metal probe thermometer and supply hand-washing cleanser in restrooms. Those items -- along with safely thawed foods and chlorine for cleaning -- were absent when county health inspectors shut down Viva Mexico on Oct. 23.
Two days before, patron Constance Williams-Pennel was found dead at her Sunnyvale home. Coroner's reports confirmed she had been infected with shigella, a food-borne bacteria found in other sickened patrons as well. Her family filed a wrongful death suit in March.
Former restaurant patrons Suzie and Hector Lapuyade of Redwood City also filed suit. They say their 9-year-old son has a lasting fear of food after spending days in agony with vomiting and diarrhea after his Oct. 21 Viva Mexico meal. For months, he avoided the school cafeteria until teachers called his parents to warn them.
"I cannot believe they only got fined $55,000; that is absolutely disgusting," Suzie Lapuyade said. "Somebody died, and my child was very sick -- my child could have died."
Publicity surrounding the Viva Mexico case has resulted in stepped-up restaurant inspections in San Mateo County. More than 400 establishments long overdue for inspections have been checked, and the 2001-02 county budget proposed this week includes an additional food inspector. A Web site to be launched in July will feature a year's worth of inspection reports for all county eating spots.