Court fight looms over salmonella outbreak

Nearly six months after a salmonella outbreak at a Vernon Hills restaurant sickened hundreds of people, some still have symptoms such as stomach cramps, their lawyers said.

Others have medical bills they can't afford, said lawyers, who are gearing up for possible trials after mediation talks with the Chili's restaurant chain failed to produce a settlement.

As health officials prepare to issue a final report next week on their investigation into Lake County's largest recent salmonella outbreak, the legal effects are expected to extend well into 2004.

Attorneys who represent 140 of the victims have scheduled new mediation talks with Chili's in February. At least three lawsuits have been filed.

"It was totally preventable," said Denis Stearns, an attorney with the Seattle-based law firm of Marler Clark, which represents about 70 clients.

More than 60 people have sought legal help from Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, a law firm with offices in Waukegan and Chicago.

The Health Department has confirmed 168 cases of salmonella and identified 109 probable cases linked to Chili's Grill & Bar, 567 E. Town Line Rd., officials said.

A lack of hot water and an employee who didn't practice proper hand-washing are believed to have caused the outbreak, health officials said.

Before the restaurant voluntarily closed July 1, a water heater broke, leaving Chili's with no hot water one day and no water at all for nearly two hours during lunch the next day, health officials said.

Since the outbreak, Chili's retrained all of its Vernon Hills employees on safe food-handling procedures and other safety measures, said Louis Adams, a company spokesman.