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Chili's lawsuit settled

A Seattle law firm announced a settlement has been reached between 49 victims of the salmonella outbreak traced to the former Chili's Bar and Grill in Vernon Hills and Brinker International, owner of the franchise.

The settlement included awards to victims from Antioch, Buffalo Grove, Gurnee, Lake Bluff, Lake Villa, Lake Forest, Lake Zurich, Libertyville, Lincolnshire, Mundelein and Vernon Hills.

Marler Clark, a firm specializing in the representation of food poisoning victims, filed individual lawsuits and a class action lawsuit in federal court in Chicago during 2003 that sought punitive damages on behalf of all outbreak victims. The settlement was worked out before the trial was scheduled to start. Due to confidentiality agreements, the amount of the settlement has not been revealed.

"We were far along in the process of preparing these cases for trial when settlement discussions finally seemed to turn serious," said Marler Clark partner Denis Stearns. "We believed strongly in our case and the importance of the point we were trying to make about food safety and corporate responsibility. This was a case we really wanted to take to trial. But when finally faced with the chance to not only fully compensate our clients, but to do so in a way that showed the clients that, 'We really did send a message with this one' -- that was something we had to recommend accepting."

Chris Barnes, a Brinker International spokesman, said Monday the firm is glad a settlement has been reached. "We are pleased this portion of the case is behind us. We have been working diligently all along to resolve this matter," said Barnes, acknowledging that another related lawsuit is still pending.

Barnes is referring to the lawsuit the Waukegan law firm of Salvi Schostok and Prichard filed in July 2003 at Lake County Circuit Court, on behalf of eight alleged victims, including two boys under the age of 6, who are seeking damages in excess of $50,000. Those named in the lawsuit come from Lake Villa, Lindenhurst, Vernon Hills, Beach Park, Great Lakes Naval Training Center and Kenosha, Wis.

The lawsuits followed a June 2003 incident in which the Lake County Health Department was alerted to a possible food poisoning situation after it received a positive salmonella test result from Lake Forest Hospital, where a patient had reported eating at the Chili's restaurant in Vernon Hills. The health department investigated the situation, checking food preparation methods and the health of employees. One inspection found that a dishwashing machine with a chlorine sanitizer had not been working properly for several days. The next day, two more cases of food-borne illnesses were reported by people who said they had eaten there. Other accounts followed.

Health officials determined the source of the salmonella infection was not due to improperly cooked food, but to employees who likely failed to follow proper hand washing techniques and a management decision to keep the restaurant open for two days even though its water supply was interrupted.

The food poisoning epidemic affected more than 300 persons who dined at the Vernon Hills restaurant between June 23 and July 1 in 2003. The health department interviewed about 1,200 individuals including 305 people whose illnesses appeared related to the outbreak. Of those, 141 patrons and 28 employees tested positive for salmonella.

Stearns of Marler Clark said among other things, the lawsuits filed had alleged that Chili's "acted in a grossly negligent manner" and that "wanton and willful acts were committed with a conscious and reckless indifference to existing circumstances and conditions, and to the rights and safety of others."

"In a way it is too bad that the amount of the settlement is confidential," said Bill Marler, a partner with Marler Clark. "I think that more than most settlements we achieved in the past, this one would really have made the restaurant industry sit up and take notice."

While the settlement with the victims remains confidential, Lake County announced it was billing Brinker for $32,000 in unusual expenses tied to the vast amount of testing required and retaining of employees. The company agreed to and has reimbursed the county for those expenses.

The public health incident prompted the village of Vernon Hills in November to amend its ordinances pertaining to liquor license control to include food preparation and sales. An environmental health food ordinance was passed this June. More than 120 restaurants, bars and food service operators were put on notice that the village was tightening its inspection programs. Village inspectors were cross-trained by the county and go on both unannounced and announced food service inspections.

Since then public hearings have been held at the village to address violations fixed during the inspections. Three restaurants were closed until critical violations were fixed and several have been fined as a result of the new restrictions.

Trustee Richard Cashman, who sits on the liquor hearing board with Trustee Barbara Williams and Mayor Roger Byrne, said the village "should play hardball by publicizing the critical violations" as a means of protecting the public. "They shouldn't be surprised and will feel the wrath of the public," Cashman said.

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