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Conviction for deadly, peanut-laced meal could set example for restaurateurs

A British restaurant owner was convicted of manslaughter for serving a deadly meal to a customer with a peanut allergy. Patrick Sison/AP/file 2015

Mohammed Zaman was an immigrant success story. Born in Bangladesh, he had arrived with nothing in the United Kingdom at age 15 before working his way up the restaurant business. By the time he turned 50, he was the owner of half a dozen award-winning Indian eateries around North Yorkshire. He sent his kids to private schools and prestigious universities.

But the immigrant who had arrived without a penny began cutting corners, employing undocumented workers and swapping ingredients for ersatz imitations, according to prosecutors.

On Monday, that penny-pinching caught up to Zaman when he was convicted of manslaughter in connection to the death of one of his customers.


Zaman, 52, was sentenced to six years in prison for the death of Paul Wilson, a highly allergic bar manager who died in 2014 after eating chicken tikka masala that Zaman’s restaurant had promised was peanut-free.

Prosecutors had argued that Wilson’s death was the result of Zaman swapping out almond powder for a cheaper, peanut-based mix. He even ignored another customer’s near-death experience, they said.

‘‘Time and again he ignored the danger and did not protect his customers,’’ prosecutor Richard Wright told a jury in Middlesbrough in northeast England, according to the Daily Mail. Zaman had ‘‘put profit before safety, and he cut corners at every turn.’’

Zaman’s conviction, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.K., could set an example worldwide by showing restaurants can be held accountable for not heeding their customers’ allergy needs.

‘‘Paul’s death was avoidable and the outcome of this case sends a clear message to those who operate similar businesses that if they choose to operate in such a grossly negligent way, they are liable to prosecution as well as having to live with the potential deadly consequences,’’ said North Yorkshire Police detective inspector Shaun Page in a statement.


‘‘Nothing can bring Paul back but it is our sincere hope that his death will raise awareness in the food industry so that this never happens again,’’ added Wilson’s parents, Margaret and Keith Wilson, in the statement. ‘‘Peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-induced anaphylaxis,’’ reports the Mayo Clinic, and for someone who is allergic, even tiny amounts can constrict airways and cause unconsciousness and death.

According to prosecutors, the culinary time bomb was set six months before Wilson’s death when Zaman changed the ingredients in his tikka masala, swapping out almond powder for a cheaper version containing peanuts.

Paul Wilson had spent his life meticulously avoiding peanuts, ever since learning of his allergy at age seven. His parents had eliminated all foods containing even a hint of peanuts. And when Wilson went to work in the hospitality industry as a bar manager, his allergy made him extra attentive to the dietary requirements of his customers.

Not so for Mohammed Zaman.

Just three weeks before Wilson’s death, a young woman had a severe allergic reaction after eating what she thought was peanut-free food from another one of Zaman’s six Indian restaurants.

‘‘My throat started to swell and I started getting very panicky,’’ Ruby Scott told the BBC. ‘‘I couldn’t really breathe properly. My friend’s dad rushed me to [the] hospital and my mum was meeting us there. She didn’t recognize me at first because I was covered in hives and purple by this point.’’


Zaman was told about the incident but kept on using the peanut powder at his restaurants, prosecutors said. The restaurateur was more than $400,000 in debt and trying to cut costs in his kitchens, where he also employed undocumented and under-trained workers. At the same time, Zaman continued to pay for his four children to attend elite schools and universities.

That double-standard would prove deadly for Paul Wilson.

When he ordered chicken tikka masala from Zaman’s Indian Garden in January of 2014, his takeout container said no peanuts. In fact, it was full of them.

‘‘He rang at eight o’clock that night, said he’d got his curry, he was home,’’ his mother, Margaret, told the BBC. ‘‘And his last words were ‘I love you both and I’ll talk tomorrow.’’’

Police found Wilson’s body slumped over the toilet, where he had desperately been trying to expel his deadly dinner.

Prosecutors charged Zaman with manslaughter by gross negligence, perverting the course of justice and six food safety offenses. They argued that Zaman had a duty to serve safe food, ignored warnings and was criminally responsible for his customer’s death.

‘‘His was a reckless and cavalier attitude to risk and one that we, the prosecution, would describe as grossly negligent,’’ Wright argued.

In court earlier this month, the restaurant owner tried to distance himself from Wilson’s death, pointing out that he was not at Indian Garden when Wilson ordered or picked up his food and claiming he had delegated responsibilities to his employees. He was a law-abiding businessman, Zaman claimed.


‘‘His is the immigrant story to which everyone should aspire,’’ said his attorney, Alistair Webster, according to the Mail. ‘‘He arrived in the UK without a penny to his name. . . It is clear he worked hard for many years, bringing up a family of law-abiding children while working very hard to build up businesses which supported a large number of people.’’

But neither judge nor jury bought Zaman’s argument.

After a jury found Zaman guilty of manslaughter on Monday, judge Simon Bourne-Arton sentenced him to six years in prison, pointing out that Zaman had thrown away a nearly $3 million restaurant business by putting profit ahead of his customers.

‘‘You threw all that away,’’ Bourne-Arton said, according to the Mail. ‘‘You have done so in pursuit of profit. You have done so in such a manner as to bring about the death of another individual. Paul Wilson was in the prime of his life. He, like you, worked in the catering trade. He, unlike you, was a careful man.

‘‘You remain in complete and utter denial for what you have done,’’ the judge added.

Outside the court, Wilson’s parents hoped the unprecedented punishment would prevent others from suffering a similar fate.

‘‘Justice has been served, Paul can rest in peace,’’ the said, according to the Telegraph. ‘‘We can’t go back and change the past, all we can do is focus on the present and the future and making things right. Don’t let this happen again.’’


Reactions to the verdict varied widely, with some commenters arguing that the sentence was too long.

‘‘There are people who commit vicious violent crimes, even rape and don’t get sentenced to six years!’’ one wrote. ‘‘Sure he is responsible and should be punished but a perspective has to be kept, even by the judiciary! There was no intent to harm let alone kill, sure the whole thing is tragic; but six years . . . no!’’

‘‘Six years and he’ll get his life back,’’ pointed out another commenter. ‘‘[The]same can’t be said for the other man.’’