Men suing Chi-Chi's for 'hepatitis soup'
Even though he had been laid off from his job at US Airways, Bennie Martino had reason to celebrate.
Last fall, he and his wife learned they would be allowed to adopt their foster child. They decided to splurge at Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant, but the meal ultimately compounded their woes.
Martino, 40, was stricken with hepatitis A in an outbreak that infected 660 people, including four who died. The illness left him with nearly $146,000 in medical bills, he says.
Martino, of Monaca, was one of two people who sued the restaurant chain Wednesday in federal court, claiming they became ill with hepatitis A after dining at the Chi-Chi's at Beaver Valley Mall.
Angelo Palitti, 44, of Aliquippa, was the other. He contends the hepatitis A he suffered complicated his recovery from an earlier kidney transplant.
The lawsuits, both filed by Seattle lawyer William Marler, allege that the method Chi-Chi's used to store green onions, which health officials have identified as the likely culprits, essentially created "hepatitis soup."
David Ernst, a lawyer from Portland who is representing Chi-Chi's, said the bankrupt restaurant chain has successfully settled 98 percent of the cases of those threatening litigation. He said he tried to mediate the claims from Martino and Palitti on Tuesday, but the two sides were not able to resolve their differences.
"Cases don't always settle on the first day of mediation," Ernst said. "We will continue our discussions."
For Martino, the medical bills mean a tight Christmas for his family this year.
The lawsuit states the hepatitis caused him to suffer acute kidney and liver failure. He recovered after a blood transfusion, but this March he struggled with a strep infection because of a weakened immune system, his lawsuit claims.
Martino said he has returned to work as a mechanic for Mid-Atlantic Airways, a division of US Airways, where he makes $13,000 a year, about half of what he made before he was laid off in March 2003.
Martino said he can't make up the difference in overtime because of complications from hepatitis A. He said he has no feeling in his upper right thigh and part of his face is numb.
"It's rough," Martino said. "I try to stay calm for my family and everything, but what are you going to do?"
Martino claims the illness prevented him from graduating from a 15-week job-training course. He said the illness struck him and his wife, Mercedes, at a vulnerable time. They had no health insurance, and he was collecting unemployment.
"It was definitely the last thing I needed to go through at that point," Martino said. "It was just crazy. Now, I get creditors calling me and sending me letters. I tell them it's in litigation. That's all I can do right now."
He said his adopted 6-year-old son helped him pull through.
"He'd come to the hospital every day and see me laid up like that," Martino said. "The most important thing in my life is my boy and being here for him."