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Chi-Chi's agreement awaited

A federal bankruptcy judge in Delaware is expected to approve an agreement today between Chi-Chi's, its creditors and the plaintiffs suing the company over the Beaver County hepatitis A outbreak that would send each case to nonbinding mediation.

Attorneys for many of the plaintiffs said Monday that the agreement might quickly settle some cases and keep them from languishing in the court as the Mexican restaurant chain moves through bankruptcy.

"What we're trying to do is figure out a way where everyone gets fairly compensated," said attorney William Marler.

Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer whose firm represents about 70 hepatitis A plaintiffs, described the proposed mediation as "a process where everybody gets an opportunity to resolve their claim in a ... straight-forward manner."

Mike Jones, a lawyer with the Hopewell Township firm of McMillen, Urick, Tocci and Fouse, which represents nearly 100 clients in the suit, said mediation will "without a doubt" speed the settlement of some claims.

"We anticipate a lot of them will be resolved this way," said Jones.

However, cases involving severe health problems resulting from hepatitis A infections will probably take much longer to settle, he predicted.

Plaintiffs would not forfeit their right to pursue their claims in court if they entered mediation.

Jim Ross, a lawyer with Bowers, Ross and Fawcett in Ambridge, which represents about 40 clients, said the mediation process could begin this spring.

"It's our hope and Chi-Chi's hope that we can resolve these cases in an amicable fashion and an expeditious fashion," Ross said. "Each claim is going to have to stand on its own merits."

A Chi-Chi's spokeswoman could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined that tainted green onions from Mexico caused the outbreak in the fall that sickened 660 people, killing three of them. Nearly all of those sickened either ate or worked at the Chi-Chi's at the Beaver Valley Mall in Center Township.

Under terms of the agreement, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Chi-Chi's would also ask the court to set a deadline for filing hepatitis A claims. The deadline would be 45 days after the request from Chi-Chi's is granted by the judge, according to the agreement.

Although Pennsylvania has a two-year limit to file liability claims, Jones said allowing that much time would delay the company's bankruptcy proceedings longer than Chi-Chi's or the creditors would want.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Chi-Chi's chief operating officer, Bill Zavertnik, said his company has paid out less than $1 million to settle claims related to the hepatitis A outbreak.

About 200 of the 660 people known to have been infected have sought out-of-pocket reimbursements from the restaurant, and 70 percent to 75 percent of those claims have been settled, Zavertnik said.

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