On a Sunday night last January, a bubbly brunette waitress named Courtney Rhon stopped for takeout at El Toro Taco in Homestead. The 32-year-old mother of two ordered a beef chimichanga and a taco dish for her 14-year-old son. There was food at home for her two-year-old. They ate together around 9 p.m., and then went to bed.
Around 2 a.m. Courtney awoke violently ill. She couldn't stop vomiting, cramping, and sweating -- and had to keep running to the toilet. When her mother, Margaret Armstrong, checked on her the following afternoon, she was still in bed sick. Her legs had turned purple.
Armstrong rushed her sick daughter to the emergency room at Homestead Hospital, where she collapsed and went into cardiac arrest. Doctors tried to revive her with little success. They pronounced her dead at 7:16 p.m. The cause of death: Bacterial infection of the blood. Courtney's spleen had been removed more than ten years ago after an ATV accident, and her immune system couldn't battle the bacterial strain.
Courtney's parents filed a lawsuit against the restaurant June 4. It claims her death was due to contaminated food and negligence on the part of the owners. The family-owned Krome Avenue joint served dishes not "fit for human consumption" or "free of dangerous and potentially fatal bacteria," the suit states. The family is seeking punitive damages for "loss of companionship" and "mental pain."
Counters restaurant owner Emma Hernandez: "Our insurance company found there was no food poisoning involved."
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But the restaurant has a history of failing health inspections. In January 2009 -- the month of Courtney's death -- state inspectors cited El Toro Taco at least 53 times. Among the findings: "dead roaches," "rodent droppings," and "encrusted grease and soil [on the] meat grinder."
In a "legal action" letter sent to El Toro owners January 29, 2009 Florida Department of Business District Manager Shannie Kallis warned: "The division is taking disciplinary action... which may include suspension, revocation, or refusal of your license."
Courtney wasn't the only one who got sick, claims the attorney for the dead woman's family, Alex Perkins. Three days before her meal, a woman whom Perkins declined to name ate a beef taco and contracted food poisoning. "It's not hard to connect the dots," he says.