Judge allows punitive-damage claims in Chili's case

A federal judge in Chicago has ruled that victims of the salmonella outbreak at the Chili's restaurant in Vernon Hills last June may add claims for punitive damages to lawsuits pending against the restaurant's owner, Brinker Restaurant Corp.

As a result, Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm representing nearly 50 victims of the outbreak, on Monday filed amended complaints on behalf of some of its clients.

Attorney's for the firm said the decisions by restaurant managers, including remaining open without hot water and without any water service at one point, constituted "conscious and reckless indifference."

"After reviewing the facts of how this outbreak happened, I think it would be hard for a reasonable person to argue that punitive damages are not called for here," said Denis Stearns, the Marler Clark partner handling the Chili's lawsuits. "And while no one is saying that anyone at Chili's intended to poison hundreds of people, we still believe that a conscious, and perhaps profit-driven, decision was made to put public health at risk. It is not by accident that the majority of people who got sick were infected on the days there was either no hot water or no water at all."

According to the Lake County Health Department, 305 people were likely victims of the salmonella outbreak.