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Castellini named in hepatitis suit

Tainted onions may have passed through Ky. firm

Castellini Co., the 107-year-old produce distributor in Wilder, is being dragged into the maelstrom of lawsuits stemming from the recent outbreak of hepatitis A at a Chi-Chi's restaurant near Pittsburgh.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh by Richard and Linda Miller, who had lunch at the restaurant Oct. 12. Two weeks later, both were diagnosed with hepatitis A. Mr. Miller required a new liver and underwent transplant surgery Nov. 8. Their medical bills exceeded $500,000.

The hepatitis outbreak killed three people and affected about 600 others. Federal officials traced the disease to green onions produced in Mexico. Chi-Chi's used raw green onions in the preparation of salsa and several entrees.

Castellini, a fresh fruit and vegetable wholesaler with about $500 million in annual sales, would not comment on the lawsuit Tuesday because it said it had not received a copy yet. But it did say that Chi-Chi's green onions "may" have passed through the company's warehouse in Wilder.

"Castellini Co. received the green onions packaged in master cartons, ready for shipment to its customer in the Pittsburgh area," it said in a statement. "That customer may have supplied the green onions to the restaurant in question. The cartons in question remained intact in the Castellini Co. warehouse until shipment to the Castellini Co. customer. Neither Castellini Co. nor any of its affiliates unpacked or processed the green onions in the cartons."

Castellini, a family-owned company with about 2,000 employees, emphasized that neither the U.S. Food and Drug Administration nor any other agency investigating the hepatitis A outbreak has implicated it in the case.

Last month, the Louisville-based chain of Mexican restaurants - which filed for bankruptcy Oct. 8 - agreed to pay victims up to $20,000 each for medical expenses, lost wages and other costs. Most of that money will come from an expected $51 million in insurance proceeds, which the Millers' lawyer, William Marler of Seattle, doesn't think will be enough to cover all claims.

Living up to his reputation as a crack litigator, Marler is now going after upstream parties in the Chi-Chi's case. Teaming with a law firm in Pittsburgh, Marler sued four companies that allegedly grew, brokered and shipped the infected green onions to the Chi-Chi's in the Beaver Valley Mall. In addition to Castellini, the suit names three California produce growers and shippers.

"We have filed suit against those growers and suppliers who had the opportunity to prevent this outbreak before it reached the Chi-Chi's restaurant and the Millers' lunch," Marler said. "Taking this step gives us the best chance of preventing such a disaster in the future."

The Millers' lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages. It claims that the companies failed to provide food fit for human consumption.

FDA inspectors determined that the green onions originated in Mexico, but haven't pinpointed the specific farms. Hepatitis-tainted green onions grown in Mexico are also suspected in the death of an O'Charley's customer in Tennessee and the sickness of dozens of O'Charley's customers in Tennessee and Georgia in September.

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