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Milk Allergy Death Of 16-Year-Old Leads To Lawsuit

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) - A Minnesota family wants restaurants to make changes after an allergic reaction took the life of their son.

Scott Johnson, 16, had a severe milk allergy since birth. He died last summer after eating restaurant pancakes that his family thought were dairy-free.

"He could light up a room," his mother, Cindy Johnson, said.

His smile would be brightest when he was left to explore Bemidji's lakes and woods.

"Four o'clock in the morning during hunting season: 'We got to go, we are late,'" his dad, Steve Johnson, said.

Johnson was the second of four kids in a family that always looked out for him.

"Every time I'd be out shopping with my parents, I'd pick it up and look at the label -- 'Can Scott have this?'" Johnson's sister, Jaris, said.

Johnson suffered from a severe dairy allergy since birth.

"Things you wouldn't even imagine have dairy in them," Cindy Johnson said.

Johnson had scares before. Small traces of dairy would be enough to send him to the emergency room. That's why his family said eating at a restaurant became rare and would always be done with extreme caution.

"If it wasn't right, we didn't eat until his was right," Steve Johnson said.

But on a weekday morning last June, the girls wanted to treat their mom and brother to breakfast at Bemidji's Minnesota Nice Cafe.

minnesota nice cafe bemidji
(credit: CBS)

"We didn't have to wait for a table," Cindy Johnson said. "They knew us by name."

The family's lawsuit explains what they say happened next. The complaint says Cindy Johnson asked the server if the restaurant's gluten-free pancakes were also dairy-free. The server said, after checking with the cook, they were. Cindy then told the server the grill would have to be cleaned before Johnson's pancakes were made.

His mom and sisters then watched Johnson eat two pancakes, thinking they were fine.

dairy allergy 2
(credit: Johnson family)

"He had just finished, and he said, 'We have to go now,'" Cindy Johnson said.

Johnson forgot to bring his EpiPen and nebulizer to the restaurant, the tools he'd used before to open his lungs and help him through an allergic reaction. When the Johnsons got home, it became clear they weren't working. Cindy called 911.

"I was 18 miles off the highway when I got the call," Steve Johnson said.

On a road construction job two hours away, he got word his son would be airlifted to Fargo.

"The hardest thing for me was I didn't get to talk to him," Steve Johnson said.

Doctors told his parents their son had suffered such a severe anaphylactic reaction, his heart had failed.

Johnson died three days later.

"Sixteen years, that's too short," Steve Johnson said.

"I miss him just as much today as I did the day after," Cindy Johnson added.

The Johnsons are sharing their story with the hope it will stop something like this from happening again and help people realize just how serious allergies can be.

"Ask questions and, if you're not sure, don't do it," Steve said.

"Just one mistake can take someone's life," Cindy Johnson added.

Because of the lawsuit, Minnesota Nice Cafe told WCCO they couldn't comment. Gus Nicklow from Meshbesher & Spence is representing the Johnson family.

Sixty thousand Minnesota children have food allergies. Restaurants don't have to make special accommodations for them because the state doesn't require all workers to get food-allergen training.

Across the country, about 200 people die from food allergies each year.

A fund has been set up for the Johnson family at the First National Bank of Bemidji, called "Scott Johnson Benefit."

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