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Friendly's in lawsuit over hepatitis A scare

Individuals who received an inoculation shot after the hepatitis A scare surrounding Arlington's now-closed Friendly's last year might be entitled to compensation thanks to the settlement of a class-action lawsuit.

The terms of the settlement were approved by the Middlesex Superior Court in February, and if finalized in June, would allow qualifying individuals to receive a lump sum of $200 from Friendly's. Lawyers recently sent notification to effected individuals.

In the letter, lawyers said the proposed settlement "provides for prompt, efficient and fair relief" considering "the relative risks, costs and benefits" to individuals who received inoculations because of the hepatitis A case.

Qualifying individuals are requested to submit claims by May 30 to be included in the settlement class.

Last summer, town health officials discovered that a Friendly's employee, not from Arlington, had been diagnosed with hepatitis A - a liver disease that is not life-threatening but is highly contagious and can cause flu-like symptoms, jaundice and in rare instances, more serious liver complications. The illness can be spread through contaminated food or drink if an infected individual does not wash his or her hands after using the restroom.

As a precaution last June, the Arlington Board of Health hosted a three-day clinic to administer immune globulin shots to the nearly 3,000 people who said they had eaten at the Friendly's on Broadway (which will soon become an East Cambridge Savings Bank) from June 4 to 15, the time in which they might have been exposed to the disease.

Later that month, lawyers from Marler Clark of Seattle, and Sabra and Aspden of Somerset, filed the class-action suit against Friendly's on behalf of plaintiff Frederick C. Foster, a Boston resident, and all others who had been potentially exposed to the illness and would have had to receive the immune globulin shots.

Foster said he and others had missed work to get the needed inoculation and should be compensated for lost wages, emotional distress and any other medical-related expenses.

On Feb. 8, the Middlesex County Superior Court approved a proposed settlement between the two parties, determining that anyone who had received an inoculation shot because they had either eaten food from Friendly's between June 4 and 15, or been exposed to individuals infected with hepatitis A from Friendly's food, would be entitled to file a claim.

The court required the Board of Health to release the names of all individuals who had received immune globulin shots at any of the three days of the clinic.

The court also ordered that the number of claimants in the suit should not exceed 3,000 and appointed Marler Clark and Sabra and Aspden as counsel to the class.

Marler Clark is a Seattle-based firm that specializes in litigation of foodborne illness cases. Its work includes a $15.6 million settlement with the Jack in the Box fast food restaurant on behalf of a client who had contracted E. coli, and a current class action lawsuit against Quiznos in Boston, another site of potential hepatitis A contamination.

Steven P. Sabra, the attorney from Sabra and Aspden handling the Friendly's case, specializes in personal injury law, workers' compensation, criminal defense and wills and estates.

He said Friendly's has been cooperative in trying to compensate effected individuals.

"Friendly's has acted very professionally and responsibly," he said. "In this whole case, from the beginning, they worked cooperatively with us to try and resolve this."

At a fairness hearing set for June 22, the court will consider all submitted claims and also determine whether to award an attorney fee of $45,000.

Sabra said this is the last stage of approval in the suit and he is optimistic of the results.

"Trying to predict what is going to happen in court is a very dangerous thing," he said. "But when you have both groups in favor of a proposed agreement, that is a positive thing"

Friendly's has already reimbursed the town $55,000 for the costs of running the clinics, which includes a $40,000 reimbursement for supplies, the hiring of nurses and overtime pay, and $15,000 for the police details. The immune globulin was provided free of charge by the state.

After the hepatitis A scare and the eatery subsequently failed two Board of Health inspections, Friendly's closed the Broadway location last August.

Friendly's did not return phone calls for comment this week.

If anyone has questions about the lawsuit, or would like to submit a claim, they can contact Class Counsel Steven Sabra, at Sabra and Aspden, 1026 County St., Somerset, MA 02726 or call 508-674-0890.

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