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Florida man seeks damages against isle airline caterer

Ernie Lyon says food served on a flight by Gate Gourmet made him sick

A Florida man sued Honolulu airline caterer Gate Gourmet yesterday, claiming the company sickened him on a flight to the mainland last year.

Ernie Lyon accused the company of serving food contaminated with the Shigella bacteria, causing him to develop a 104-degree fever and accrue $3,000 in medical bills. The suit seeks unspecified damages.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Gate Gourmet in an April letter of unsanitary conditions at its Honolulu kitchen, including employees preparing meals in bug-infested areas.

Gate Gourmet said it has fired its Honolulu general manager, hired additional staff and fixed all the problems. The company passed an FDA inspection Tuesday.

The state Health Department also linked an outbreak of food poisoning to carrots served by Gate Gourmet on flights out of Honolulu April 22-24, 2004. But the investigation could not determine whether the carrots were contaminated by the caterer or elsewhere.

Lyon flew on Northwest Airlines from Honolulu to Minneapolis on April 22.

"I thought I was going to die," Lyon said. He believes the illness was caused by his meal of chicken pot pie, roll, and a salad with carrots and cucumbers.

Lyon hired Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP, created by attorneys involved in the 1993 case that won $15.6 million from fast-food chain Jack in the Box over tainted hamburger.

Marler Clark also represents a dozen victims from other Honolulu flights, said Managing Partner William Marler.

"We're talking about investigators finding vermin, food stored at temperatures over 50 degrees higher than what is considered safe, and a 'pink, slimy substance' in the washing machine," Marler said.

Gate Gourmet acted quickly to investigate both the FDA findings as well as reports of unexplained illness last year and take corrective action, spokesman John Bronson said.

The company, working with the state Health Department, tested 58 employees for Shigella, but results were negative, he said.

"It was not possible to determine the cause of the August illnesses despite a coordinated investigation by the Hawaii Department of Health, the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, the company and our Honolulu employees, who voluntarily participated in the investigation," Bronson said.

Gate Gourmet, based in Reston, Va., and Zurich, Switzerland, is owned by Texas Pacific Group. It reported 2004 revenue of $2 billion and serves 195 million meals a year. In Honolulu, it serves 10,000 to 15,000 meals a day to passengers on Northwest, Delta, United, Hawaiian and Aloha airlines.

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