The men had been dining and drinking at Rittenhouse Square’s Scarpetta for several hours when waitress Kristin Lisi walked down a hallway. There she came face to face with customer Gregory Englesbe and two other men.
“You’ve been walking by me all night, and I want a kiss,” said Englesbe, the head of a South Jersey-based mortgage bank, according to court documents. Then he grabbed Lisi, spun her around and forcibly kissed her, documents said. Next, one of the other men leaned in and said, “Now it’s my turn.”
Last week, a Philadelphia jury awarded Lisi $3 million following a lawsuit over the October 2016 assault at the upscale restaurant, which Lisi said resulted in nerve damage from a torn rotator cuff.
Attorneys for Englesbe did not respond to requests for comment. According to court papers, Englesbe admitted to the kiss and accepted blame for harming Lisi, but said he didn’t believe his actions could have led to such extensive injuries.
Englesbe was the chief executive officer of Cherry Hill-based E Mortgage Management at the time of the incident. The firm said Wednesday that he had resigned from the position, effective Tuesday.
The case is an unusually egregious example of the sexually charged comments, groping, and other forms of harassment by customers that restaurant workers deal with routinely, said Nadia Hewka, an attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and a founder of the Coalition for Restaurant Safety. She said it also represented an opportunity for local restaurants to consider whether they have adequate policies in place to protect employees not only from predatory supervisors and colleagues, but from patrons who cross the line.
“A lot of times you can see these situations coming from a mile away,” she said. “Restaurants need to think through whether the staff knows who they can go to, and to make sure they know that you have their back, and that you’re not going to take the customer’s side over theirs.”
More sexual harassment complaints are filed in restaurants than in any other places of business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a 2014 report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers of New York, 65 percent of female restaurant workers surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment by customers. The report also found that women who work in restaurants faced sexual harassment from customers at twice the rate of their male co-workers, and that for many women surveyed, harassment by customers had a stronger negative effect than what they experienced from colleagues.
Many restaurants struggle with how to best handle sexual harassment complaints, particularly small independent establishments. Often, employee handbooks are designed solely to address problems between coworkers, Hewka said. The culture of restaurants, with its unbalanced power dynamics, alcohol consumption, and a focus on providing excellent hospitality to patrons, can leave servers vulnerable, Hewka said.
“Some customers can feel entitled to your time,” she said. “And they feel empowered to treat others however they want.”
Drew Carballo, general manager of Scarpetta in Philadelphia, declined to say whether the restaurant had a policy addressing harassment by customers. The Italian chain has locations in New York, Miami and Las Vegas, among others.
The Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury awarded Lisi $600,000 in compensatory damages and $2.4 million in punitive damages for injuries she said were caused by Englesbe’s grabbing the back of her neck and spinning her around.
Englesbe spent several hours at Scarpetta on the night of Oct. 7, 2016. According to court filings, he was with a group known to some of the restaurant’s staff, and when the group became loud and boisterous, they were moved to a private dining room. The men were visibly intoxicated, the documents said.
Englesbe and two men who were not identified in the suit approached Lisi in a hallway about 10 p.m., according to the complaint. The restaurant’s security cameras captured the incident, and the video footage, along with a doctor’s testimony and worker’s compensation files, were used as evidence at trial. Criminal charges were not pursued.
Lisi’s attorney, Dion Rassias of the Beasley Firm, said the waitress did not have time to react to Englesbe when he took hold of her neck.
“He starts at her throat and works his way around,” Rassias said, describing footage of the incident. “It’s like being in a car crash — your body can’t react to it, and it becomes involuntary traction at that point.”
Philadelphia courts have historically been seen as a favorable venue for plaintiff’s attorneys, prone to high-dollar jury judgments.
The amount Englesbe has to pay was decided within the context of his personal wealth, according to the firm that represented Lisi. Her legal team anticipates an appeal, but Rassias said they felt “terrific” and were confident Lisi would receive the full amount of damages awarded to her.
Lisi, who filed her suit in May 2017, has no plans to return to the service industry following the incident, according to Rassias.
Staff writer Courtney Becker contributed to this article.