Sunday, February 25, 2024

Colonial Williamsburg discredits gluten allergy lawsuit, moves to dismiss

A lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday claims Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by removing an 11-year-old with a gluten allergy from Shield's Tavern. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
A lawsuit filed in federal court last month claimed Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by removing an 11-year-old with a gluten allergy from Shields Tavern. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Colonial Williamsburg has denied allegations that they did not accommodate an 11-year-old gluten-intolerant boy’s disability during a school trip in May, according to a formal response filed by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The formal response, filed Monday, comes roughly a month after the father of the boy, referred to as “J.D.” in the suit, filed a complaint in federal court in Norfolk.

The child’s father, Brian Doherty, alleged that Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disability Act in May by failing to accommodate the boy’s gluten allergy; specifically, the plaintiff alleged, Shields Tavern refused to allow the boy to eat food prepared outside the restaurant.

“Colonial Williamsburg adamantly denies it violated any laws or mistreated Plaintiff in any manner,” the Foundation said in its answer to the suit. “Colonial Williamsburg advised Plaintiff’s school before the school’s trip that it did not allow outside food in its taverns but offered to prepare gluten-free meals for Plaintiffs as an accommodation, and the school ordered them on the Plaintiffs’ behalf.”

According to the plaintiff’s complaint filed July 19, the incident occurred during a fifth-grade class trip to Colonial Williamsburg on May 11, documents state. The suit claims the children had been raising money for the trip to Colonial Williamsburg since first grade.

The tour included a trip to Shields Tavern for an “educational experience,” the complaint states.

After telling an interpreter assigned to their table they would not be able to safely eat the tavern’s food, they took out their own food, according to the complaint. A costumed interpreter told the boy and his father they would not be able to stay in the tavern to eat the “safe food,” forcing the pair to eat the food outside in the rain.

In the response, Colonial Williamsburg shed light on its perspective of what happened at Shields Tavern when the boy and his father arrived. First, the tavern’s head chef prepared gluten-free meals for the plaintiff, Colonial Williamsburg said, and has special training to do so.

“On the night of the Plaintiffs’ visit, the Tavern altered its menu to accommodate several other visitors with food allergies and food preferences in other groups,” the answer read. “Mr. Doherty nonetheless rejected the meals prepared by the Tavern for Plaintiffs because he said he did not trust the kitchen. The Tavern’s head chef offered to prepare other gluten-free food for Plaintiffs but Mr. Doherty refused that accommodation as well, insisting that the Plaintiffs would only eat the outside food they brought into the Tavern.”

In addition, the Foundation said, the plaintiffs brought a cooler into the Tavern with their own food, plates and utensils. A server informed the manager, who then “politely explained” to Doherty that they could not eat food they brought into the restaurant and use their own plates and utensils. The tavern offered to prepare a gluten-free meal, but Doherty allegedly said he did not trust the kitchen and refused.

“The manager then retrieved the head chef who reassured Mr. Doherty that he had personally prepared gluten-free meals, which they could eat safely,” Colonial Williamsburg said. “Plaintiff’s father said he was not interested. The head chef offered to cook another meal for them, but again Mr. Doherty refused.”

Separately, Colonial Williamsburg denied that it made the boy and his father leave. Rather, it said, the plaintiffs were told they could “stay and enjoy the tavern experience,” but they “chose to leave and eat outside.”

In addition, the Foundation said the plaintiffs “were not exposed to the elements” when they went outside, and they ate inside “a covered pavilion.” While they ate, they were entertained by the tavern’s historical interpreter – as arranged by the tavern’s manager, who watched them leave and noticed they were “upset.”

“As a result,” the Foundation said, “they received more personal attention than any other guest in the Tavern that evening.”

As part of its response, Colonial Williamsburg said it learned about the lawsuit from the news media, after the law firm representing the plaintiff sent out a press release. 

Colonial Williamsburg’s Director Of Public Affairs Kevin Crossett declined to comment on the case. Mary Vargas, an attorney for the plaintiff, discredited the Foundation’s response.

“Colonial Williamsburg’s answer does not accurately portray the facts or the manner in which this child and his family were treated before, during, or after his exclusion from Shield’s Tavern and is internally inconsistent in multiple respects,” Vargas said in an email Tuesday. “Ultimately, a jury will have to decide whether sending a child out in the rain because of his disability is what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires.”

The Foundation’s response also asked the court to dismiss the complaint with prejudice, enter judgment on its behalf and award it attorneys’ fees and costs from defending the matter, as well as any other relief the court deemed “just and proper.”

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is represented by Danah L. Rust and Micah B. Schwartz in the Richmond office of McGuire Woods LLP.

WYDaily archives were used in this article. 

Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley
Joan Quigley is a former Miami Herald business reporter, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and an attorney. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post,, and Talking Points Memo. Her recent book, Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital, was shortlisted for the 2017 Mark Lynton History Prize. Her first book, The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy, won the 2005 J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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