The Kokomo Chinese buffet restaurant Great Wall has filed a lawsuit against a city resident who posted a debunked claim and two photos on Facebook alleging she found maggots inside a napkin dispenser.

Great Wall said in the lawsuit, filed this week, that defendant Dottie Stewart’s “false and defamatory statements” have caused the restaurant to suffer “damages to its reputation, mental anguish, humiliation and loss of business.”

The North Dixon Road establishment, represented by Kokomo attorney Erik May, has demanded a jury trial and is requesting “a reasonable amount” to compensate for damages and other financial costs.

“Defendant Dottie Stewart’s false and defamatory statements were made with a malicious intent for the purpose of damaging [Great Wall’s] reputation and business interests,” reads the lawsuit.

The statements that sparked the controversy were made by Stewart on March 6, when she posted on Facebook: “I’m sick to my stomach. While eating at Great Wall on Dixon we had maggots at our table in the napkin dispensers. I’m so sick. We will never eat there again! We are contacting the health department.”

Great Wall Facebook post

The words were followed by four emojis, including an angry face, a distressed face, a sick face and a vomiting face.

Attached were two photos of a Tork Xpressnap napkin dispenser.

That same day, March 6, Stewart filed a complaint with the Howard County Health Department, saying that “objects in napkin dispensers appear to be maggots. Food was also cold on bar.”

She claimed to be sick to her stomach for the next 16 hours, from noon to 4 a.m. Her visit to Great Wall was during the lunchtime hour.

A health department investigator, however, visited Great Wall the day after Stewart’s post and complaint, determining “the substance that ‘appeared to be maggots’ was actually paper fibers from napkins that had been in the dispensers before.”

May sent a cease and desist letter to Stewart on March 8 saying “it is obvious that your statements were malicious and made with the very intention of damaging my client’s reputation.”

May said the restaurant “has suffered irreparable damage to its business interests.” By the cease-and-desist letter, he noted, the post had been shared more than 500 times.

Great Wall manager Shan Lin said she immediately knew that napkin fibers had fallen to the bottom of the dispenser after she saw Stewart's post.

Lin explained that when people pull a napkin, fibers often fall into the dispenser – an explanation supported by the health department in its report.

She said the restaurant uses brown or white napkins, depending on what is received from the supply company. In conjunction, Stewart noted in her letter the napkin dispenser at her table “was empty and had small brown objects in the bottom of the dispenser."

“I think we should stand up to protect our reputation,” said Lin in a previous interview with the Tribune.

“We’ve been in Kokomo for over 20 years, and I don’t want someone who is not responsible just saying something on social media and spread rumors [about] us … and make our customers scared.”

Lin noted that business “very obviously” declined the day after the post, including the cancellation of a catering order of more than $200. In addition, May has said “the difference in total sales as compared to the week prior was considerable.”

Stewart has apologized for her actions.

In a March 12 letter to Great Wall’s ownership – the letter was also sent to the Kokomo Tribune and Kokomo Perspective – Stewart said she is a regular customer who has “enjoyed eating at your restaurant.”

“I had no intention of damaging the reputation of your restaurant, and I did not act with any malice toward you or your restaurant,” she wrote. “I did not intend for my Facebook post to be available to anyone other than my family and small group of friends.

"I am sorry. I understand that making the post on Facebook was not the right thing to do, and I'm sorry. I would ask that you forgive me. It was never my intention to cause any distress. Looking back, however, I can clearly see that I didn't think things through before I made my Facebook post.”

She added: "I was mortified when I learned my Facebook post had been shared and people other than my family and close friends had seen it. I contacted Facebook right away and asked that the post be deleted. I enjoy being on Facebook to communicate with my family and friends, but I was so distraught over this matter that I deactivated my Facebook account entirely.”

Meanwhile, Stewart’s attorney, Alan Wilson, told the Tribune he “most likely will not comment publicly, but will make our position known in court at the appropriate time.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.