Brinker faces 2 more lawsuits

Illness incident is 'not representative' of Chili's, spokesman says

Brinker International was named Monday in two more federal lawsuits over a salmonella outbreak a year ago at a Chili's Grill & Bar in a Chicago suburb.

The outbreak sickened more than 300 diners and employees and hurt company sales in the Midwest.

The case is considered unusual because the Dallas-based company hasn't settled the litigation.

The company has pushed for mediation since last summer, a Brinker spokesman said, but a lack of documentation of the individual cases has delayed the talks.

The outbreak "is not representative of our brand's 29-year history," said Louis Adams, the Brinker spokesman. "We have a strong 29-year history of providing our guests with a safe and enjoyable dining experience."

The suits – the fifth and sixth filed by Seattle-based Marler-Clark LLP – allege that the plaintiffs were among the 276 patrons and 29 workers who suffered stomach ailments and flu-like systems after eating or working at the Vernon Hills restaurant between June 23 and July 1, 2003.

Salmonella bacteria can cause the sudden onset of problems including abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting.

Nine hospitalized

At least nine people, including some of Marler-Clark's clients, were hospitalized. The plaintiffs in one of the recent suits became ill about a week before their wedding and were still ill during the ceremony and honeymoon, according to the suit.

Officials with the Lake County Health Department said a dishwashing sanitizer stopped working several days before the outbreak. The restaurant also continued to operate after losing first its hot water and then all water, the health department reported.

Both new suits – and three older suits – were filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Illinois. The first was filed last July. A sixth suit was filed in state court in Lake County.

Recently closed

The restaurant, one of nearly 970 in the chain, was closed recently – one of 30 "older and underperforming" Brinker outlets shuttered. The outbreak led to slower sales growth in the Midwest last year, the company told analysts when it announced the closings.

The incident also was a factor in the decision to shut the restaurant down, Mr. Adams said.

Lawsuits following bouts with food-borne illness are nothing new.

Most companies, especially large ones with well-known brands, work to settle the cases quickly.

"Most restaurant chains are eager to get things like this off of the news pages," said Chuck Gross, principal with Denver-based Worden Gross Public Relations, which specializes in food-industry crisis communications.

"They want to take steps to protect their brand and move on. The more it lingers, the more damage it can do to their reputation."

Bill Marler, whose law firm filed the suits, said previous attempts to settle the matter have failed.

"We have a big disagreement with Brinker" over the settlement amounts, he said. "I think this case will, in fact, go to trial."

The suits seek compensatory and punitive damages but do not list an amount.