'Exploding' snails a boon for sales

NOVATO, Calif. —A closely watched lawsuit over "exploding" escargot at a Northern California restaurant might not result in new law, but it's been a boon for snail sales at the establishment.

Richard Mayfield, manager of the landmark Seafood Peddler restaurant in San Rafael, testified Friday that escargot orders have doubled since it was reported that two diners filed suit over an order of snails gone amok. Chadwick St.-OHarra and Steve Righetti claim their escargot ruptured in their faces, scalding them with hot garlic butter.

Mayfield told Judge Roy Chernus that sales have hit 743 so far this year, and the lawsuit is the only escargot complaint the restaurant has received.

"Is that orders, or individual snails?" Chernus asked as the courtroom audience burst into laughter. Orders, Mayfield noted.

The testimony came Friday afternoon during a small-claims trial in Marin Superior Court, where St.-OHarra and Righetti are seeking a $7,500 judgment for alleged negligence, pain and suffering.

The incident occurred in June, when St.-OHarra took his longtime friend Righetti to dinner at Seafood Peddler to celebrate his birthday. The men said their escargot exploded when they stuck in their cocktail forks, spraying them with sizzling butter and soiling their clothes.

The men, both 59, finished their $100 dinner and did not seek medical treatment, but later filed a claim against the Seafood Peddler.

When the restaurant's insurer denied the claim, the men sued in small-claims court.

"Our primary interest in being here is food safety, not whether we had a bad meal," St.-OHarra, a Danville, Calif., resident, told the judge. "I couldn't see out of my eye for several minutes due to the grease in my tear duct.

"We had no reason to expect that when we put the fork into the escargot, it would explode — literally jump 2 to 3 inches off the plate."

Righetti testified that he "didn't know what to think" when the delicacy detonated.

"I thought to myself, 'This just couldn't be happening on the day of my birthday,'" said Righetti, a Sonoma, Calif., resident who owns an auto repair business in San Rafael. "I just couldn't wait to leave the restaurant, to be honest with you."

But Mayfield, who appeared with his co-defendant, manager Manuel Camacho, noted that the two men stayed for an hour and a half eating their meals.

Mayfield said the plaintiffs didn't even mention their injuries during the seven to 10 minutes he was personally preparing zabaglione at their table.

"We did everything to make this dinner right, and I just think this is a frivolous lawsuit," said Mayfield, who noted that the plaintiffs were offered a free glass of wine and not charged for the escargot.

News of the escargot lawsuit spread to media outlets throughout the country and abroad, and the trial itself brought a contingent of reporters to court, a rare event for a small-claims case. Chernus said his practice is to take small-claims matters under consideration and notify the litigants of his ruling by mail.

Chernus said he would render a decision within two weeks.

After the hearing, St.-OHarra said he still hopes to put Seafood Peddler's owner, Al Silvestri, on the stand, and is considering a slander lawsuit. Silvestri said in a previous interview that St.-OHarra "made up this story."

St.-OHarra and Righetti said they stopped for lunch together before coming to court. St-OHarra had a burger, Righetti a salad.

"We avoided any escargot," St.-OHarra said.