PALM HARBOR — A young schoolteacher burned during the preparation of a flaming Bananas Foster dessert at her engagement dinner has sued the restaurant for negligence.
Katie Hudgins, now 26, was engulfed in an explosion of flaming rum last summer at Ozona Blue Grilling Co., a seafood restaurant at the Home Port Marina. She suffered first- and third-degree burns across a fifth of her body, including her arms, legs and face.
Hudgins sued Ozona Blue and owners Deborah and Johnnie Fragale on Feb. 17, seeking unspecified damages for her suffering and mental anguish. The suit accuses Ozona Blue of not training its servers, failing to protect patrons and throwing away evidence to hamper the investigation.
On a Saturday night in June, Hudgins, a first-grade teacher at Dunedin Elementary, and James "Jimmy" Rogers, her 25-year-old fiance, were celebrating their engagement with a family friend and Rogers' parents.
After dinner, they ordered two Bananas Foster desserts, a sweet concoction of bananas and cinnamon sauteed in butter and served over ice cream. Their server, Ian Monsalvo, wheeled over a tableside dessert cart to begin the dramatic flambe.
Yet Monsalvo, the suit claims, did nearly everything wrong. He used highly flammable 151-proof rum. He poured into the flame directly from the bottle rather than from a smaller container. And he put two servings into one pan, causing the burning rum to overflow.
Flames blasted up the stream of rum and exploded, igniting Hudgins' dress and engulfing her in flames. A 20-year-old line chef and aspiring firefighter burst from the kitchen to extinguish the blaze.
As paramedics rushed to treat Hudgins, the suit states, restaurant employees cleaned up the scene, removing "all evidence of the fire" before fire investigators arrived.
"We asked them what type of bottle it was in, and they said they didn't know," said Palm Harbor Fire Rescue spokeswoman Liz Monforti in June. "When we got there, everything was gone."
Hudgins spent two weeks in Tampa General Hospital's burn ward, undergoing a series of skin grafts. Her attorney, Darryl Richards, estimated current medical bills at about $125,000.
Hudgins' skin, Richards said, remains scarred and discolored. She must coat herself in sunscreen and long clothing whenever she goes outside.
Much of the damage, though, remains invisible. Rogers' uncle, Tom George, said in July she was so self-conscious about her scarring that she was embarrassed to go outside.
"She still has a great deal of fear of fire," Richards said. "She has nightmares of herself being engulfed in flames."
The suit states the restaurant is liable for Monsalvo's negligence, though he is not named as a defendant. The suit also accuses the restaurant of failing to warn patrons of the dish's "dangerous nature."
The defendants have yet to respond in court. Owner Deborah Fragale declined to comment for this story.
Any payment of damages could be affected by another lawsuit, filed in July, where Ozona Blue accused its insurer, Wilshire Insurance, of cancelling its coverage a day before the fire and reinstating it a day later. That case is pending.
In November, Hudgins and Rogers were married on a beach in Naples, where Hudgins was born. Hudgins is back at work, George said. "She's managing," he said. "Let's just put it that way."
Advertised on its website as the "hottest spot in Palm Harbor," Ozona Blue no longer offers Bananas Foster on its dessert menu.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected]