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Chi-Chi's to settle lawsuit

Staff and wire reports

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Bankrupt Chi-Chi's Inc. and its subsidiaries have tentatively agreed to pay $800,000 to compensate 9,489 people who got inoculated because of a 2003 hepatitis outbreak linked to its restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall.

William Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents the plaintiffs' class, gave a copy of the class action settlement to The Associated Press. The agreement still must be filed in federal bankruptcy court in Delaware.

The state Department of Health administered the immune globulin shots after the outbreak was publicized in early November 2003. Health officials urged shots for relatives of those sickened, as well as those who ate in the restaurant in the weeks leading up to the outbreak.

Four people died and more than 650 people were sickened by tainted green onions served at the now-closed restaurant.

The victims will split the $800,000, but how much each gets will be determined by how many of them eventually file claims with the court, Marler said.

His firm has crafted similar settlements in other large foodborne outbreaks. Typically, about 30 percent of those who got shots will file claims, Marler said. If that happens in this case, about 2,850 claims will be filed and each will be worth about $281.

Laura Crevar, 37, of Moon, and her family were among the thousands who waited hours in line to be inoculated after they celebrated her birthday at Chi-Chi's.

"I felt like the whole thing was my fault because we were all out for my birthday and I picked the restaurant," Crevar said. "I really liked the chips and salsa there."

Crevar stood for almost three hours at the Community College of Beaver County to get the immune globulin shot, along with her two young daughters, husband Mark -- who had to take off from work -- and elderly grandmother.

The settlement -- no matter how small the Crevars' part ends up being -- will be a nice way to compensate for lost time and wages and the fear they suffered because of the hepatitis outbreak, she said.

What really matters though isn't money, but the health of her family, Crevar said.

"I feel horrible for the people who actually got sick, and I'm just grateful we all turned out OK in my group," she said. "That's the most important thing when it comes down to it."

Marler's firm will get a fee of $150,000. Marler said about $100,000 of that would be donated to charity. The other $50,000 would be used to publicize the settlement and notify those who were inoculated, he said.

"With class actions, what's bothered me in the past is that everybody (the plaintiffs) gets a coupon and the lawyers get a million dollars," he said.

An attorney for Chi-Chi's declined comment on the deal.

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