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Family sues over hepatitis death

Lawyers claim Ashland restaurant liable in Pine City man's death from hepatitis A.

A wrongful-death lawsuit was filed Monday in the Chemung County Clerk's Office against a town of Ashland restaurant in connection with the March death of a Pine City man.

Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm, and the Rochester law firm Underberg and Kessler filed the suit on the behalf of the estate of Donald L. Rockwell and his two children, according to a news release from Marler Clark.

The lawsuit claims Rockwell, 49, contracted hepatitis A after eating lunch Oct. 3 at Maple Lawn Dairy Family Restaurant on Lower Maple Avenue. He began feeling ill Oct. 20 and sought treatment Nov. 3, the news release states.

Rockwell died March 13, after four months at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. His family said at the time of his death that he died of complications from hepatitis A. Doctors said the disease had severely damaged his liver, the family said.

A Maple Lawn employee was diagnosed with hepatitis A on Oct. 13, and later recovered and returned to work.

The Marler Clark news release said the law firms are not suing the Chemung County Health Department, which issued a news release Nov. 6 saying there were four diagnosed cases of hepatitis A traced to Maple Lawn.

"Mr. Rockwell's family does not blame the health department for late notification about the potential outbreak," said Bruce Clark, a partner with Marler Clark. "It's the health department's job to protect the public, and the family feels that the Chemung County Health Department tried its hardest to do so."

Mina DeRenzo, owner of Maple Farm Dairy, said Tuesday there will not be another hepatitis A outbreak at her restaurant.

"Our whole staff has been inoculated for hepatitis A and B now," she said. "We can never get it or give it."

DeRenzo said she is convinced there was no lapse of procedure with her employee, who she said was devastated when the restaurant lost so much business after the outbreak was publicized.

She said she and her husband, both in their late 60s, have had to use their life savings to keep the restaurant going. They have had to cut their staff nearly 50 percent because of the decrease in business.

"We're sorry about Mr. Rockwell," she said. "But we've already lost enough. And so have the people who work with me."

Elmira attorney James B. Reed, who was representing Rockwell and two other men who said they contracted hepatitis A in the restaurant -- Stephen Glidden of Elmira Heights and James Russ of Horseheads -- gave notice Dec. 27 that they were planning to sue the county health department for negligence because it didn't notify the public soon enough about the discovery of the worker with hepatitis A.

Reed declined to comment Tuesday night on the status of the possible lawsuit against the county. He also said he is not involved in the Rockwell lawsuit but has been in contact with the other law firms because he will file lawsuits against the restaurant on behalf of Glidden and Russ.

In December, restaurant general manager Jamie Brand Fortier defended the county, saying she notified the county the day the employee learned he had hepatitis A, and the county was on the scene within 30 minutes.

She said the health department acted properly and their inspection showed the restaurant was using proper food handling procedures, and even someone who was infectious shouldn't have transmitted the disease.

Attorney Ransom Reynolds of Elmira's Davidson & O'Mara law firm, who is representing the county, also said in December that the county health department acted appropriately and followed established guidelines.

Glidden, contacted by telephone Tuesday night, said he became seriously ill with hepatitis A.

"I thought I was going to die," Glidden said, noting that he turned yellow and lost 40 pounds.

A diabetic who has also had two open heart surgeries, Glidden said he at first thought his illness was related to his heart.

"I've never been so sick," he said. "Recovering from open heart surgery was nothing compared to that.

"I'm just glad to be alive," he said. "I didn't think I was going to make it."

Russ could not be reached for comment.

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