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Judge Approves Mediation in Hepatitis A Outbreak

Pittsburgh (AP) A bankruptcy judge approved an agreement Thursday that will create a mediation system to handle hundreds of legal claims for people sickened during a major hepatitis A outbreak linked to a Chi-Chi's restaurant last year.

Claimants will have 45 days to submit lawsuits to nonbinding mediation, beginning in about two weeks, said William Marler, a Seattle-based attorney for 67 people who say they were sickened in the outbreak.

At least 660 people were infected and three died in the outbreak traced to tainted green onions served at the restaurant, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. The first report of the outbreak was received by state health officials on Nov. 1.

Federal health officials said it was the largest single-source hepatitis outbreak in the nation's history.

In the past, notices of court orders like the one signed Thursday have been run in newspapers and on radio broadcasts advising people who say they were affected to send in claims, Marler said.

The state has records of the approximately 9,000 people who were inoculated following the outbreak.

California officials used such records to send notifications to people who were treated for E. Coli that killed three children and sickened hundreds of people who were served tainted meat by the Jack in the Box chain in 1993.

The hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania has been more complicated as far as settling claims because Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi's is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and can't be sued without court approval.

"The argument against this system is there is a short timeframe for filing claims," Marler said. "But you don't have to send in all of your information. You just need to make sure that Chi-Chi's, the suppliers and insurers know you exist."

Cases may be divided into those who were sickened and those who just went in for shots.

Chi-Chi's bankruptcy attorney, Alan Friedman, didn't immediately return a call for comment.

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