Firefly salmonella outbreak called worst in a decade

A popular local restaurant chain is under fire after being linked to one of the worst food-borne illness outbreaks in Southern Nevada in a decade.

The salmonella outbreak traced to Firefly on Paradise has sickened at least 89 people, closed down the restaurant and prompted at least one lawsuit so far.

On Thursday health department officials said the restaurant could reopen as soon as next week if it can pass inspections.

But even if it does, the company, which has three restaurants, still faces lawsuits and an uphill battle to regain the public’s trust.

“I can’t imagine who would be stupid enough to eat at a Firefly restaurant at this point,” said John Curtas, a Las Vegas restaurant reviewer who has been harshly critical of Firefly and its owner, John Simmons.

“This is not just a one off deal,” said Curtas, citing a 2011 closure of the same location linked to the recent outbreak.

Curtas, who is also an attorney, said courts have held restaurants liable for food-borne illness and awarded damages in the tens of thousands of dollars per victim.

There’s already one case against Firefly, filed Thursday in Clark County District Court, seeking a jury trial. Another case is expected to be filed as soon as Friday morning, according to attorney William Marler.

Marler’s law firm says it has represented thousands of people in food poisoning cases. Murphy & Murphy Law Offices, which is working with Marler, exclusively represents people who have been injured by Las Vegas businesses or individuals.

“When you have a systemic negligence like this with multiple poisonings at the same time ... this could be a substantial amount of damages,” Curtas said.

Amy Irani, acting director of the Environmental Health Division in the Southern Nevada Health District, said Thursday the outbreak was the worst she’s seen at a permitted restaurant in her 10 years on the job.

Irani and medical epidemiologist Nancy Williams said the restaurant, which has been closed since Friday, could reopen next week if it can pass health and safety inspections.

They attributed the outbreak to a failure by management to adequately pass along and enforce training standards in the Firefly’s busy kitchen.

The restaurant received 44 demerits in an inspection subsequent to the outbreak, which was detected Friday but traced back to dining that occurred from April 21-24, officials said.

Of the 89 people to have been affected by the outbreak so far, 86 patrons and three employees, about 12 received hospital treatment and all have been characterized as “recovering” from symptoms.

“This is actually on the more severe side,” Williams said of the outbreak.

Symptoms of salmonella infection include vomiting, diarrhea and cramping. The symptoms can lead to dehydration and weakness, which can require hospitalization.

Irani said the number of people sickened was the most she’s seen from a permitted food facility since she started working at the health district in 2003.

She said the restaurant’s high number of menu items and busy kitchen contributed to problems that led to the outbreak, which included off-temperature food and inadequate sanitary procedures.

“Their menu is very extensive and the rapid flow of food coming out of the kitchen was a factor in this,” Irani said.

Restaurant reviewer Al Mancini, who has written about an uptick in restaurant closures from 2011 to 2012, said all restaurants have violations but what varies is the severity.

Mancini said the Firefly problems go beyond a typical demerit-based closure because customers and employees became ill.

“We’ve never seen an outbreak like this and it is a story that doesn’t seem to be going away,” Mancini said. “I never want to see a restaurant go out of business but I can understand why people wouldn’t want to eat there after reading this.”

The most troubling violations, Mancini said, were related to sanitation. They included an employee handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands, an employee not washing hands and raw meat stored in a way that allowed liquid to drip from it onto cooked meat.

Simmons said he was “horrified” as the drama unfolded with dozens of patrons falling ill.

“This is a hard process,” he said. “I just want to find out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .