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Great Wall on March 26, 2019. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

A Howard County woman being sued for posting on Facebook that she found maggots inside a napkin dispenser at Kokomo’s Great Wall restaurant says her post was not malicious and did not damage the restaurant's reputation.

Dottie Stewart’s claims, which have been debunked by health officials, caused a social media storm after they were put on Facebook this spring. Now, the restaurant is seeking compensation for what it says have been significant damages ranging from its reputation to loss of business.

Stewart responded to the lawsuit May 31 and has continued to move forward with her defense.

Most recently, Stewart’s motion for change of judge in the case was granted Tuesday by Superior Court 2 Judge Brant Parry, who gave the two sides seven days to agree on a special judge. No reason is given in court documents for why she wanted a new judge.

Stewart, who in court documents admits to making the Facebook post but denies it was done maliciously, says in her answer to the lawsuit that the “allegedly defamatory statement was a statement of opinion” and “was retracted.”

Stewart noted in a previous letter sent to local media and the restaurant’s ownership that she deactivated her Facebook account after the post blew up.

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.”

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, 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.

Great Wall Facebook post

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.”

The restaurant, represented by Kokomo attorney Erik May, sent a cease and desist letter to Stewart on March 8 and then filed a lawsuit April 1.

Stewart also denies the restaurant’s stance that those damages are ongoing.

In her response, Stewart says her post could not have damaged the restaurant's reputation because she claims the restaurant already has a "poor reputation," as evidenced by social media posts, and is therefore "libel-proof."

“Any harm caused by [Stewart’s] statement was incremental, and [she] is not liable for incremental harm,” reads the response, which argues that any harm suffered by Great Wall was ultimately caused by “statements made by third parties.”

Stewart, who is represented by Kokomo attorney Alan Wilson, also says Great Wall’s lawsuit should be dismissed “for failure to join parties needed for just adjudication.”

The North Dixon Road establishment, meanwhile, has demanded a jury trial and is requesting “a reasonable amount” to compensate for damages and other financial costs.

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 – not maggots – after she saw Stewart's post.

“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.”

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.