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Man claims he contracted virus from city restaurant

A high-profile law firm filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a Spokane man who claims he contracted the hepatitis A virus from Carl's Jr. Restaurant downtown.

The Seattle firm of Marler Clark is representing Melbourne E. Munter, 23, in a complaint for damages filed Thursday in Spokane County Superior Court. The firm has handled several prominent suits regarding food-borne illnesses, including E. coli cases related to other fast-food chains.

The suit says Munter ate a sandwich he bought at Carl's Jr. in January. A man handling vegetable garnishes at Carl's Jr. on Third Avenue contracted the disease and potentially exposed customers and co-workers. "Mr. Munter is still very ill," attorney Bill Marler said. "He still suffers from severe nausea and diarrhea." Paul Stepak, medical epidemiologist at the Spokane Regional Health District, said it's hard to pinpoint the exact time and place someone contracts the virus.

Marler said Munter received medical treatment at Deaconess Medical Center and remains unable to work. The suit will represent people directly sickened and those who were forced to take immune globulin shots in an effort to prevent infection, Marler said. Suzi Brown, director of public relations for the fast-food chain, said the company has not yet been formally served with the lawsuit. "It's not our policy to comment on pending litigation; however, we are not aware of any individuals who have contracted hepatitis A after eating at our restaurants," Brown said. Stepak said three new cases of hepatitis A have been reported to the district since the restaurant worker got sick.

He doesn't know if they're connected to the restaurant. About 1,300 doses of immune globulin treatment have been given in the county since the initial exposure in late January and early February. "Unfortunately, the number of ill people is likely to rise because the incubation period can be several weeks and there is a substantial risk of person-to-person exposure," Marler said. "If the number of reports increase in the next week, and these people have eaten at Carl's Jr., the chances are pretty good that they were exposed there given the length of the incubation period," he said.

The class-action suit names Munter and "all those similarly situated" against Carl's Jr. The Seattle firm is well-known for cases involving contaminated food. Marler was featured in a Wall Street Journal story in the past few years. In a 1993 class-action suit, Marler represented 300 people who ate meat tainted with the E. coli bacteria at Jack in the Box restaurants. He also handled many other individual suits in the case. Most of the cases were settled out of court.

In the case of Brianne Kiner of Seattle, Jack in the Box settled for $15.6 million after she suffered brain damage, lost her large intestine and was in a coma for 48 days. Kiner recently celebrated her 16th birthday, Marler said. Marler has been involved in several other nationwide cases involving food-related illnesses, including the 1996 Odwalla apple juice E. coli outbreak, and the 1998 Malt-O-Meal salmonella outbreak in 10 states.

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