Court OKs payments for those given shots after hepatitis outbreak

PITTSBURGH - Nearly 5,000 people who had to get shots to ward off hepatitis A during a food-poisoning outbreak at a western Pennsylvania Chi-Chi's restaurant two years ago will be mailed checks for $162.23 each next month.

A federal judge in Delaware overseeing Chi-Chi's bankruptcy signed off on the class-action settlement last week.

Chi-Chi's paid $800,000 to those who had to get shots. Nearly 9,500 people got the shots, but only 4,931 filed claims by the court-imposed deadline of Oct. 24. The money was equally divided among those who filed claims, said Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who sued on their behalf.

The settlement compensates those whom state health officials urged to get shots because they ate at the restaurant during the outbreak in the fall of 2003, or because they were closely related to someone who got sick.

All those given shots were mailed claim forms in August; the proposed settlement was also advertised in various Pennsylvania newspapers.

More than 600 people were sickened, and four eventually died, from eating at the Chi-Chi's in the Beaver Valley Mall.

The class-action settlement doesn't cover those who sued for other medical damages or death. More than 550 people and the families of the four who died also filed claims for out-of-pocket medical expenses and/or for more serious damages.

Nearly all those cases, including the wrongful death lawsuits, have settled for more than $40 million, attorneys for the plaintiffs and Chi-Chi's have said.

Chi-Chi's had filed for bankruptcy shortly before the outbreak, citing cash flow problems. The chain and its insurers are suing their food suppliers to get reimbursed for settling the various lawsuits. Chi-Chi's is seeking $55 million on top of that, claiming the outbreak scuttled a plan to sell the chain as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan.

The restaurant chain instead liquidated in September 2004, selling 76 remaining restaurants to Outback Steakhouse Inc., of Tampa, Fla., for $42.5 million.