E. coli suits sent to Circuit Court


Insurer is sued in Sizzler E. coli outbreak

Lawyer wants to 'turn up the heat' on defendants

A Seattle lawyer with extensive experience in litigating E. coli mishaps filed a lawsuit Monday against the financially troubled Philadelphia insurance firm linked to the two Sizzler restaurants where E. coli outbreaks occurred last year.

"It's really time to turn up the heat on the insurance companies and the other defendants to help these people," said William Marler, who has won millions of dollars for clients in E. coli cases.

Marler said he was concerned that the insurance company might not be able to pay money being sought by the nearly 80 parties in the case. Milwaukee attorney Michael Hanrahan has joined Marler in the lawsuit filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on behalf of Nira Chlebowski, 67, of St. Francis. She was hospitalized for five days after eating at the south side Sizzler on July 18, 2000, the lawsuit says.

Chlebowski's lawsuit is the 12th filed over the outbreak at the W. Layton Ave. Sizzler and the Sizzler in Wauwatosa. The outbreak of the bacteria, blamed on the handling and processing of uncooked beef and other foods, caused more than 60 confirmed illnesses and led to the death of 3-year-old Brianna Kriefall of South Milwaukee.

The newest lawsuit is filed against E&B Management Co. of Waukesha, the local owner of the two Sizzler restaurants, as well as national franchise Sizzler USA.

It is the first to name Reliance Insurance Co. of Philadelphia as a defendant.

Marler said he thought it was important to sue Reliance, which insures Sizzler USA, because he is worried that if Reliance were unable to pay damages or settlements, Sizzler USA might not be financially able to cover those amounts.

Reliance Insurance Co. stopped issuing and renewing policies last year and was taken over by Pennsylvania insurance regulators in May under an order from a state judge. Reliance is the main operating unit of Reliance Group Holdings of New York, which filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code in June.

Calls to Reliance Insurance were referred to Pennsylvania regulators, who could not be reached for comment.

William Steinmetz, the Milwaukee attorney who represents Sizzler USA, pointed out that Sizzler USA and another company, Federal Insurance, bear the primary responsibility for paying claims. He also said that if Reliance Insurance were unable to cover claims it was obligated to pay, he had no reason to believe that Sizzler USA could not cover those claims.

Marler and Hanrahan have reached an agreement with E&B Management Co., Sizzler USA and the two insurers to pay $259,000 in medical bills to the attorneys' 20 clients. E&B's attorney, Ronald Pezze Jr. of Milwaukee, said settlement talks over medical bills were continuing with other parties.

It is expected, however, that damages for pain and suffering will reach the millions of dollars for the roughly 80 claimants who have hired attorneys, including those involved in the 12 lawsuits.