(May 17) Chi-Chi’s is settling some of the several hundred claims from the green onion-related hepatitis A outbreak in one of its Pennsylvania restaurants last fall, and it is likely the company will sue some of its green onion suppliers to help share the financial burden.
Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer representing some of the people sickened, said Chi-Chi’s carries about $51 million in liability insurance, an amount he called “on the borderline of adequate.”
Under Pennsylvania law, a restaurant that serves tainted food is liable, but it also can try to get other responsible parties to bear the financial burden. Marler said that tactic was used by the Jack in the Box restaurant when it was sued over hamburgers that sickened more than 600 with the E. coli bacteria in January 1993.
In fact, Marler said Chi-Chi’s has hired the same lawyers previously hired by Jack in the Box.
“They ultimately may want to share some of the burden,” he said. However, he said that once you get past Chi-Chi’s and a couple of shippers, it becomes impossible to tell which grower shipped the contaminated onions.
Marler said a lawsuit filed Dec. 1 in U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania on behalf of liver transplant survivor Richard Miller and his wife, Linda, named four defendants they alleged may have supplied the tainted green onions to Chi-Chi’s.
In that case, still pending resolution, the defendants are:
- Castellini Co., Wilder, Ky.
- NewStar Fresh Foods LLC, Salinas, Calif.
- Apio Fresh LLC, Guadalupe, Calif.
- Boskovich Farms Inc., Oxnard, Calif.
It is unknown if Chi-Chi’s will seek to litigate against any of those companies or other companies. A Chi-Chi’s spokesman could not be reached for comment on May 12.
The Food and Drug Administration did a traceback and identified several green onion farms in Mexico they linked to various hepatitis A outbreaks last fall.
The four Mexican farms placed on detention by the FDA without physical examination on Nov. 25 were:
- Dos M Sales De Mexico, Mexicali.
- Agricola La Laguna SA De C.V. (a.k.a. Sun Fresh,Ensenanda.
- Tecnoagro Internacional SA De C.V., San Luis.
- Agro Industrias Vigor, Tijuana.
Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the FDA, said that those firms continue to be on the list of detention without physical examination, meaning that FDA officials will not allow green onions from those firms to be imported.
Cianci said there were four hepatitis A outbreak last fall, and each of the farms had been possibly associated with more one outbreak.
“In each outbreak that occurred, there were possibly more than one farm involved,” he said.
There were 650 confirmed cases of hepatitis A according to the Health Department and an additional 10,000 people that received gamma globulin shots, Marler said.
Marler said defense lawyers have indicated that 350 to 400 people have been in the process of making claims against Chi-Chi’s. Some people that received shots may be making claims, he said.