County seeks money from Chili's

Lake County health officials are asking Chili's Grill & Bar of Vernon Hills to reimburse the county health department for its handling of the salmonella outbreak this summer.

In a letter to Chili's parent company, Brinker International Inc., the county requested the company pay $32,537 for the cost of conducting its investigation. That includes all the man-hours spent by health workers training Chili's personnel and educating the public on the outbreak.

The health department does not usually budget for such expenses.

The move is unprecedented and may be repeated for future large-scale outbreaks caused by sloppy restaurant management decisions, Executive Director Dale Galassie said.

"It's the first time we've ever done that," he said. The department won't seek reimbursement for all contaminated food outbreaks, he said.

Galassie said the money does not mean additional revenue but instead is "more to cover the tax costs on what we felt was simply a poor local decision."

The June-July outbreak was caused by unsanitary work practices by the restaurant's staff. At one point, the eatery operated for almost two hours with no water, which was a willful management decision, officials said.

As a result, 163 people were confirmed to have salmonella poisoning and 146 more probable or possible cases were being investigated. It was the second-largest salmonella outbreak in the county since a large milk salmonella outbreak in 1985.

Health workers successfully contained the Chili's contamination, with restaurant management's cooperation, before it could spread to 18 other eateries.

"Despite the fact that so many people got sick, there was no secondary outbreak," Galassie said. "Our belief is the magnitude of this event and the expense involved was such that reimbursement seemed reasonable."

The health department is not the only one trying to get some money out of Chili's.

Several lawsuits have been filed in federal court against the restaurant chain by victims seeking damages for suffering.

Seattle-based attorney Denis Stearns said his law firm has teamed up with Waukegan-based Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard to represent more than 100 victims and hopes to settle the cases out of court.

Stearns said mediations are expected to begin with Chili's lawyers by next month. He plans to negotiate individual settlements for each victim according to the extent of suffering.

"I think it's important, not only for obtaining fair compensation for people to treat them individually and not lump them together, but also from an emotional point of view," Stearns said. "People want an opportunity to tell their stories."

Money: Chili's faces lawsuits, too