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A Carrboro restaurant owner is suing the cigar bar next door and the property manager of the building the two businesses reside claiming lost income and health issues due to secondhand smoke.
Diggs Restaurant Group, LLC, which operates Coronato Pizza, filed a lawsuit this month in superior court in Orange County against Oasis Cigar Club, Inc., which operates Oasis Cigar Lounge next door on Two Hills Drive. The restaurant group is also suing the building owner Woodhill NC, LLC. based on Chapel Hill.
Chef Teddy Diggs opened Coronato Pizza in 2019, but closed the dining room of his restaurant indefinitely on Feb. 26 this year, switching to takeout only, due to the "ongoing effects of the cigar smoke" from the adjacent Oasis Cigar Lounge.
The lawsuit alleges that the issue started when Oasis Cigar Lounge opened in August 2022 and "cigar smoke began migrating" from the bar to the restaurant.
In the lawsuit, Diggs said he immediately reached out to the owners of Oasis Cigar Lounge and the property owner to notify them that the "cigar smoke and odor had entered the Coronato premises" causing himself, his wife, staff and customers to suffer from "headaches, sinus and eye irritation."
The issues continued, according to the lawsuit, causing the restaurant to close early on Aug. 5 and 6 that year.
Diggs, Oasis and a Woodhill representative met in person to discuss the issues on Sept. 14, 2022, which resulted in Woodhill representative Gary Hill returning to Coronato that evening to check on the smoke himself, according to the lawsuit.
"Mr. Hill acknowledged that he could smell the cigar smoke, but that it did not bother him that badly," the lawsuit says, noting that Hill offered to purchase two air purifiers to help mitigate the smoke. The lawsuit alleges that those air purifiers did not help and were later moved to the Oasis property.
Diggs says he continued to report the issue throughout the fall and winter of 2022. On Dec. 9, 2022, Diggs said he was emailed by Woodhill's representative stating that the building owner had taken "all action that (they) believed it was required to ensure the safety of (Coronato's) air quality."
Diggs alleges that the cigar smoke has continued to migrate to the restaurant causing "health complications, extreme discomfort and other complications" for himself, customers and staff.
According to the lawsuit, Diggs reached out to public health officials, but also hired a private company, Repace Associates, to do a air quality test of the restaurant for 16 days in January 2023.
The testing found that "nicotine was detected at more than 1,000 times the minimum limit," which indicates toxic secondhand smoke, according to the lawsuit. The report found that "there was a significant leak of cigar smoke" into Coronato.
The report also found that the air pollution created by Oasis into the Coronato space exposed Diggs, his staff and patrons to "significantly unhealthy air quality from secondhand smoke that poses both an acute and chronic hazard to their physical and mental health."
While increased ventilation or unit-sealing could reduce the smoke, it would not eliminate the secondhand smoke inhalation, the report said.
"Cigar smoking produces a great deal of fine particle pollution, a great deal of carbon monoxide, and a whole host of other toxic chemicals," James Repace, president of Repace Associates, told WRAL on Monday. "Particularly for non-smokers who are sensitive to tobacco smoke, that can cause very debilitating injuries.
Repace said nicotine levels measured at Coronato were "comparable to what has been measured in the homes of smokers."
As a secondhand smoke consultant, Repace said he has "measured the nicotine levels in about 90 cases so far, and Coronato Pizza is right at the top."
"Some of my clients have gone to the hospital because of infiltrating secondhand smoke in much lower levels than are present in my estimation in Coronato Pizza," Repace said.
The lawsuit alleges that Woodhill violated Diggs' lease by not proving a premises free of cigar smoke which is a hazardous material. The breach of contract has caused damages in excess of $25,000. The lawsuit also alleges Woodhill was negligent.
In a statement, Woodhill said it was continuing to work with Coronato toward a resolution. It said:
Woodhill NC, LLC which owns South Green Center, works to provide commercial space that supports our tenants in legally operating their businesses. We have taken significant steps to ensure proper ventilation between tenants which include the installation of commercial grade air cleaners, carbon filters, and an ozone generator. We are working with Coronato Pizza and their attorney to respond to the lawsuit provided to us on April 14, 2023.
Diggs is suing Oasis for failing to prevent the cigar smoke from migrating to the Coronato property which has caused health and complications and environmental contamination.
Oasis owners shared this statement with WRAL News:
The Oasis Cigar Club has always sought to be good neighbors. It has extensive and expensive investments geared to mitigate the smoke in its space. There are 4 Industrial Strength Air Purification Units in the business. There are Ozone filters in the unit, and the HVAC units have been rerouted to negative air pressure, keeping all of the air inside. At this point, Oasis is exploring all of its legal options.
North Carolina laws state that all cigar bars opened after July 1, 2009, that allow smoking must operate in freestanding structures. The law does not apply to private clubs.
Oasis Cigar Lounge is able to allow smoking inside despite not being inside a freestanding structure because it is a considered a private club. The club is operated by the nonprofit Oasis Cigar Club, Inc., according to the state secretary of state's office. Private clubs must be operated by a nonprofit entity in order to quality for this exemption.
Diggs released a statement Monday.
"For several months, Coronato has been trying to deal with the intrusion of secondhand smoke (SHS) into our restaurant space. Professional air quality testing has deemed that our air contains a high concentration of hazardous pollutants that are related to tobacco smoke. We have been experiencing this situation for some time, but after the analysis of significant professional testing we felt that it was unacceptable for us to continue to operate our business as usual. Unfortunately, our continued attempts to resolve this issue with relative parties have proved unsuccessful thus far. Therefore, our dining room will remain closed for the foreseeable future. We believe that closing our dining room allows us to protect our guests and the public from dangerous SHS toxins, while also allowing us to manage the restaurant in a way that mitigates the negative symptoms and health risks for those of us who continue to work in the space.
This challenging time presents the Coronato staff and ownership with the same uncertainty that we felt during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful that our community showed up and supported us through those difficult years when we were only able to serve take-out – thank you! Today, we find ourselves in the same uncomfortable position where take-out is our only reasonable option for service. We appreciate your continued and conscious support of our family business, Coronato."