COLLEGE PARK, Md. (WJZ) — One in 10 adults in the U.S. has a food allergy, for some, those allergies can be life-threatening.
A University of Maryland College Park graduate with a severe case of Celiac Disease said poorly trained workers in the dining hall repeatedly served her food with gluten that incapacitated her, even sending her to the hospital. Hannah Smith is suing the school, accusing them of repeatedly giving her food with gluten which made her violently ill.
Although she achieved her dream of graduating from the University of Maryland’s flagship College Park campus she told WJZ Investigator Mike Hellgren she went through a nightmare to do so.
“I walked into the school with expectations of it being safe, and I left with all of my hopes crushed,” Smith said.
Hannah suffers from celiac disease — an autoimmune condition — where eating gluten, a protein found in products like wheat and barley and present in many baked goods, causes damage to her small intestine. It can even lead to cancer.
Just a small amount of gluten can make her violently ill.
“It’s very hard for me to describe how frightening that was. I don’t think many people understand unless they have an allergy,” Smith said.
So when Hannah made the decision to attend UMD, she tells us, she and her father met with those in charge of the dining program—and were assured—they could accommodate her disease.
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“They could have prevented all of this from happening if they had just kept their word in the very beginning,” she said.
The lawsuit alleges that despite multiple meetings with dining staff, Smith was served food that contained gluten at least four times. In multiple instances, Smith was reportedly so sickened by eating the food she couldn’t make it back to her dorm. In another instance, about two years ago, she was reportedly hospitalized and missed more than a week of classes.
Smith also reportedly developed a rash on her face due to eating gluten, the lawsuit said. Since Smith didn’t have a car and was required to buy a meal plan to live in on-campus housing, she had few other food options.
Mike Hellgren: How frightening was that reaction you had?
“For me, it was just trying to stop vomiting. I was in and out of consciousness,” Smith said. “I didn’t really understand what was happening to my body. My roommate had to text my parents and tell them I was being taken by an ambulance to an emergency room.”
Days later, a University of Maryland employee was so concerned she showed Hannah a label for the hashbrown she believes made her so sick. It clearly says it contains wheat—which has gluten.
In another incident, Hannah claimed a food services worker served her this burnt toast because she was angry Hannah complained and told her this: “I got called on the carpet because of what you did. You spoke up.”
Smith alleges in her lawsuit a school physician told her not to eat meals at the university dining facility.
Her lawyer, Mary Vargas, shared these pictures with WJZ. She said the school kept gluten-free food for Hannah next to raw meat and dirty dishes as well as gluten-containing cookies—that can cause cross-contamination.
“People tend to think this is a joke. It’s not a joke. She was incredibly ill,” Vargas said.
Hellgren: What was your reaction to how they handled this?
“I was appalled. This is just not that hard,” Vargas said. “There are universities and restaurants all over the U.S. who know how to do this right.”
The lawsuit—filed in both state and federal courts–claims what happened to Hannah is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a statement UMD said: The University does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation. We are represented by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General and would refer questions about the litigation to them.
But the university noted a new program–announced this month—where students with food allergies and sensitivities can use a dedicated storage and preparation area—and have access to cooks specifically trained to handle food allergies.
The school’s website says they have continual training—and an advisory board that deals with special diets. You can read more about their allergen program here.
But the university does not assume liability for adverse reactions to the foods students eat.
Hellgren: What would you like to see happen for others with celiac who go to the University of Maryland?
“First and foremost, I’d like them to be aware of what happened to me because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Smith said. “I trusted their word in the beginning. The first time it happened, I thought it was a mistake, but they did it repeatedly.”
According to the lawsuit, here are just some of the things Hannah wants the university to address:
“Anyone can make a mistake. This wasn’t a mistake. This happened over and over again at a major university,” Vargas said.
Mike Hellgren will have his full interview with Hannah Smith on WJZ tonight at 11 p.m.