Houston’s operator settles breastfeeding suit

WEST PALM BEACH Fla. Houston’s parent Hillstone Restaurant Group has resolved a lawsuit with a woman who sued the company in June because she was allegedly asked to leave a local Houston’s while breastfeeding her son.

The matter was settled last month for an undisclosed amount on the night before a hearing on the matter was scheduled to begin. The plaintiff’s attorney, Andrew Smith, said the case was officially closed Tuesday. He described the payment to Boca Raton resident Simone Bertucci as nominal.

Bertucci was asked to leave the restaurant by its manager. Unaware that Florida law entitles women to breastfeed in public, Bertucci said she and her infant son, Marcello, relocated to her car while the rest of the family stayed to finish its meal. The Bertuccis were celebrating the 13th birthday of Marcello’s brother.

At the time the restaurant company admitted its mistake and apologized. It also sent a check refunding the family’s meal for $150.

Still, Bertucci filed suit in the 15th Judicial Court of Palm Beach County here, largely to raise public awareness of mothers' right to breastfeed their children in public, Smith said.

Hillstone spokesman Glenn Viers said the case was without merit and the plaintiff was paid “less than nuisance value.”

“We told them that the case had no merit and if they lost, which we knew they would, they would pay our attorney’s fees,” he explained of the settlement. “They did not win anything.”

Viers, too, declined to divulge the amount paid, but stressed it was negligible.

“They tried to shake us down for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said. “I told them we weren’t sending them a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Smith said his client was satisfied with the settlement.

He said that Bertucci felt she had accomplished the goal of “creating an awareness of the rights of breastfeeding women,” but that the law is unfavorable.

In 1993, Florida passed what was at the time heralded by a pro-nursing group, La Leche League International, as the first comprehensive breastfeeding legislation in the United States. Today, approximately 39 states have some type of legislation pertaining to breastfeeding rights.

Still, Smith said the state law that protects nursing moms from being cited for indecency has no provision to recover damages.

Smith explained that the statute was enacted to exclude a woman from exposure to indecency laws, but in reality restaurants are still free to ask them to leave.

“Unless they touch the breastfeeding mother there is no civil recourse,” he said. “It is a great statue in spirit, but the statute has no teeth.”

Viers said that if the Bertuccis had approached the situation differently, it would have been resolved differently.

“Why use the legal system for a customer relations issue?” he said. “We all have kids, too. We love breastfeeding moms. We made a mistake, we apologized and we learned from it. This whole thing has been a shame,” he said.

This is not the only controversial incident involving breastfeeding within a restaurant.

Mothers nursing their babies were among the nearly 2,000 people who protested in September outside of 97 Applebee’s restaurants in 44 states.

Protesters objected to an incident in August at an Applebee’s in Lexington, Ky., where a manager allegedly told nursing mother Brooke Ryan to cover herself and her baby with a blanket because another guest complained.

Other situations include a woman nursing her baby inside Johnny’s Barbecue in Cullman, Ala. She alleged that an employee threw a dirty towel over the baby’s head to cover it up. Also, a woman reportedly got into a breastfeeding dispute in a Houston Ronald McDonald House.

Last year, it was reported that a woman was removed from a Delta Airlines flight in Vermont because she was breastfeeding.