SAN RAFAEL -- In the face of perceived injustice, few individuals have the gumption to fight for social reform. But two men are determined to make Marin County a safer place for escargot consumers, their families and generations of snail eaters to come.
Comes now in Marin Superior Court, small-claims division, the case of Chadwick St.-OHarra and Steve Righetti, who are suing the Seafood Peddler restaurant in San Rafael over an alleged incident of what their lawsuit called "exploding" escargot that marred Righetti's birthday dinner in June.
The plaintiffs allege the gastronomical gastropods burst from their plate when cocktail forks were applied, resulting in a spray of hot garlic butter on their faces and polo shirts.
St.-OHarra, a 59-year-old Danville resident, claims the butter got into one of his tear ducts, causing temporary vision impairment. Righetti, 59, a San Rafael businessman who lives in Sonoma, claims the side of his nose was squirted.
"I was humiliated," said Righetti, who owns an automotive shop near the landmark Canal area restaurant. "I thought, 'Do I need this on my birthday?'"
St.-OHarra says the incident caused "a sense of genuine outrage."
"I take my friend out to dinner, and this is the experience we have," said St.-OHarra, an information technology executive.
Still, he said, the alleged debacle need not have resulted in litigation, had restaurant personnel displayed sufficient remorse at the scene of the slime. They did not, plaintiffs allege.
"It was the indifference," St.-OHarra said. "It was the friggin' rudeness."
The plaintiffs concede they did not seek immediate medical treatment and continued on with their meal, a filet-and-lobster combo for St.-OHarra, the seafood medley for Righetti. Later, they filed a claim with the restaurant, but it was rejected by Seafood Peddler's insurer.
"Based on the information obtained through our investigation, we see no negligence on the part of our insured," Farmers Insurance Group said in an Aug. 4 letter. "No theory of liability has been established against our insured, and no documented evidence was ever provided to validate your injury."
That left Righetti and St.-OHarra, a former law student, with the option of litigation. Rather than pay thousands of dollars in attorney fees over a $7.99 plate of escargot, they filed a small-claims suit last month and are representing themselves.
The lawsuit names the restaurant and two supervisors as defendants, and St.-OHarra said he intends to put restaurant management on the stand. A trial is scheduled for Dec. 3.
Seafood Peddler's owner, Al Silvestri, laughed when he learned that St.-OHarra had contacted the newspaper about his lawsuit.
"This guy's a piece of work," Silvestri said. "He doesn't give up! Unbelievable. I told him, I don't care if the insurance company gives you a hundred thousand dollars, what do I care? But they didn't want to give him a dime."
Silvestri denies the allegations.
"We didn't do anything wrong," he said. "He made up this story. We sell thousands of escargot a year, I've never heard of anything like this."
Escargot explosion is a rare but periodic phenomenon, according to one industry veteran. Sean Canavan, executive chef at Left Bank, a French restaurant in Larkspur, said he does not know what causes the snails to burst, but he suspects that air bubbles get trapped inside the cooked mollusk.
"I saw that happen just this week," said Canavan, 40. "The thing actually explodes and the whole snail jumped out of the dish onto a lady. It's embarrassing, but I don't know how to prevent that." As of Friday afternoon, there was no litigation pending in connection with that incident.
"I think she took it with humor," Canavan said.