N.Y. Jury Tosses Family’s Claim That Thrown Shrimp Led to Death

February 13, 2006

A jury in Mineola, N.Y. took two hours to reject a widow’s claim that her husband’s death resulted from an injury he suffered while ducking a piece of flying shrimp at a Japanese steakhouse.

The family of Jerry Colaitis of Old Brookville had sought $10 million in damages from the Benihana restaurant chain, claiming it was directly responsible for his death in November 2001.

The suit, filed by Colaitis’s widow, Jacqueline, said her husband wrenched his neck ducking the shrimp during a family birthday party on Jan. 27, 2001.

The family claimed the unidentified chef tossed shrimp at party revelers three times, with the last shot at Colaitis, and refused to stop even after their pleas.

Jacqueline Colaitis said she was disappointed by the verdict. “I thought we had a very good case,” she said. “He was a healthy man who got injured that night and everything developed from there.”
The widow also complained that jurors did not spend enough time deliberating.

“I don’t think they bothered to go through the records,” she said. “Two hours is nowhere near enough to have gone through any of the records.”

In the months following the party, Jerry Colaitis, who owned a fur business, was treated by several doctors for various ailments. In June 2001, he underwent surgery to relieve numbness in his arm. Five months after that, he checked into a hospital with a high fever and died.

His family said the fever was a complication of the surgery, which wouldn’t have been necessary if not for the initial injury.

“This man was a rock,” Colaitis family attorney Andre Ferenzo said in closing arguments Wednesday. “Benihana and only Benihana set in motion the forces … that led to his death.”

Ferenzo cited the testimony of Benihana chief chef Toro Hasagewa, who said that chefs throwing shrimp and other food at customers had become common following the release in late 1990s of a Jackie Chan movie. But Ferenzo noted that Hasagewa conceded it was dangerous for chefs to toss food.

After the jury was dismissed, state Supreme Court Justice Roy Mahon denied Ferenzo’s motion to vacate the verdict. The attorney complained that jurors disregarded evidence presented during the month-long trial. The six-member jury (five men and a woman) reached a unanimous verdict, although only five of six votes was required in the civil trial.

Benihana attorney Charles Connick said the verdict vindicates his client, although he admitted the restaurant’s chefs stopped tossing cooked food at customers after the lawsuit was filed in 2002.

“I wanted to tell Benihana you just can’t do that,” Colaitis said. “I’m glad they did stop because I seriously think, you know, other people could have been injured.”

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