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Class-action notices to be mailed in Chi-Chi's outbreak

PITTSBURGH - More than 9,000 people who received shots to ward off hepatitis A after an outbreak at a Chi-Chi's restaurant will be mailed forms later this month so they can claim their share of an $800,000 class-action settlement.

The federal judge overseeing Chi-Chi's bankruptcy last month approved a schedule to mail the notices by Aug. 24 to the 9,489 people who got immune globulin shots from the Pennsylvania Department of Health after the outbreak was publicized in early November 2003.

More than 600 people were sickened, and four eventually died, from eating tainted green onions served at the Beaver County Chi-Chi's. Health officials urged shots for family members of people who became ill, as well as those who ate in the restaurant in the weeks leading up to the outbreak.

The settlement doesn't cover anybody who filed a lawsuit over damages or death. More than 550 people, and all four families of those who died, also filed claims for out-of-pocket medical expenses and/or for more serious damages. All but a handful of those cases - including all four wrongful death suits - have settled for a total of about $40 million, according to Chi-Chi's attorney Fred Gordon.

The $800,000 class-action settlement is separate and meant to compensate those whose damages were limited to the inconvenience of having to get a shot, said William Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents the class.

That money will be divided equally between everyone who files a claim form postmarked by the Oct. 24 deadline, so the value of the claims depends on how many are made. For example, if 3,000 claims are filed, each will be worth about $266.

"The notice is going to go out, and then, about the same time, there will be notices in newspapers just in case there are some people who may have gotten the shots in their doctor's office rather than through the health department," Marler said.

Settlement notices will be published in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as in several major newspapers in Pennsylvania and smaller papers that cover the Pennsylvania and Ohio counties closest to the restaurant.

People can also opt out of the settlement by the Oct. 24 deadline, and would then be free to sue Chi-Chi's for damages on their own. The judge must approve the final claims group at a hearing Dec. 12 and checks could be mailed as soon as five days later.

"Hopefully people will have their checks just before Christmas," Marler said.

Chi-Chi's has sued Castellini Co. of Wilder, Ky., accusing the firm of supplying the tainted onions, which the Food and Drug Administration traced to several Mexican farms. Castellini officials have denied wrongdoing and have a motion pending in U.S. District Court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Chi-Chi's had filed for bankruptcy shortly before the outbreak, citing cash flow problems. The chain and its insurers are seeking reimbursement for the settlements, and Chi-Chi's also wants another $55 million because the outbreak scuttled a pending plan to sell the chain, Gordon said.

The restaurant chain liquidated in September, selling its 76 remaining restaurants to Outback Steakhouse Inc. of Tampa, Fla., for $42.5 million.

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