After finding a swastika and a racist message drawn on the inside of a pizza box, a Stafford County family is suing Pizza Hut of America Inc., alleging that the restaurant's employees racially harassed them.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in Prince William County Circuit Court, Corey and Marvette Cofield claim that a Pizza Hut restaurant intimidated and harassed their family when an employee of a Dale City restaurant sold them a pizza in June with hate symbols written on the box. The Cofields, who are black, said they found a large swastika and a "WP" symbol--which they took to mean "white power"--written in marker on the inside of the box after taking it home for dinner.
The Cofields are asking for more than $1 million in damages from Pizza Hut, claiming that the symbols were directed at their family and that they caused severe emotional distress. Pizza Hut is a subsidiary of Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., which also owns the KFC and Taco Bell restaurant chains.
"You've got a family that was really shaken by this, and they feel Pizza Hut didn't do anything serious to fix the problem," said Frederick Brynn, a D.C. attorney who is representing the Cofields. "They were really spooked by the whole thing. We tried to resolve it with Pizza Hut, and they weren't really willing to do anything about it."
Jay Allison, a spokesman for Dallas-based Pizza Hut, said company officials are aware of the incident but had not been served with the lawsuit as of last night. Allison said that Pizza Hut requested a police investigation in June and that company officials conducted an internal probe but were unable to determine the source of the symbols.
"We don't tolerate nor do we condone that type of behavior," Allison said. "Anyone that we find has violated our policies of valuing diverse customers or [who] has engaged in this type of behavior will face stiff disciplinary action, including termination. We don't put up with it; we have a zero-tolerance policy."
The incident occurred June 11, when Marvette Cofield, 30, went into the Pizza Hut Express in Dale City on her way home from work and ordered a medium Meat Lover's pizza for her family. The Cofields have said that the store's manager opened the box, checked to make sure the pizza had the right toppings, and then handed it to Marvette Cofield, who took it home.
According to the lawsuit, when family members opened the box at home, they noticed the symbols and "began to feel ill, fearing that the person who marked the box may have also poisoned the pizza." The suit also claims that the Cofields "began to fear that they had been specifically targeted for this racial act, and were frightened that some other hate act would follow."
Corey Cofield, 30, said this week that his mother and brother, who were visiting from Georgia, and his two young children also were bothered by the messages on the pizza box. Cofield said that he reacted with "disbelief and anger" and that his family had never before faced any sort of discrimination since moving to Northern Virginia almost 10 years ago.
"It was beyond sick," Cofield said. "Here we are getting ready to go into another millennium, and things like this are still happening. You've got to have no tolerance for something like this."
Brynn said the restaurant's manager told the family he had found four or five other pizza boxes with similar messages on them and discarded them, though at least the one box went out to a customer.
Prince William police investigated the incident, and Brynn said detectives located a marker in the store that was likely used to draw the swastika. Because there was no way to link an individual to the incident, no criminal charges were filed.
Brynn said that Pizza Hut officials have said they "don't have any idea who did this," and that no employee has been disciplined as a result.
Allison said no disciplinary measures were taken because police and company officials could not determine who was responsible for drawing the symbols.