Punitive Damages Claim Added to Chili's Salmonella Outbreak Lawsuits


VERNON HILLS – A federal court judge has allowed victims of the Salmonella outbreak that occurred at a Vernon Hills Chili’s restaurant in June 2003 to add claims for punitive damages to the four lawsuits pending against the restaurant’s owner, Brinker Restaurant Corporation. Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm representing nearly 50 victims, today filed amended complaints on behalf of Jennifer and Bill Lussow, and Kimberly Fields.

The complaints allege that Chili’s “acted in a grossly negligent manner” and that “wanton and willful acts were committed with a conscious and reckless indifference to existing circumstances and conditions, and to the rights and safety of others, with such acts including, but not limited to, preparing and serving food to the public despite having a broken dish-washing machine without sanitizer in it, having no hot water available for employees to wash their hands on one day, and no water at all for part of a second day. Such acts were also violations of the law.”

“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’s final report on the outbreak, 305 were sickened as a result of eating food from the Vernon Hills Chili’s restaurant. In its report, the health department stated its “investigation revealed environmental factors such as a loss of hot water, loss of all water, the large number of ill employees at the facility, a general lack of handwashing and dishmachine sanitizer failure that may have caused fecal/oral contamination of multiple food items, and contributed exacerbated the spread of salmonella javiana.”

“It seems clear.” Stearns concluded, “that if Chili’s had closed for business when the water-heater stopped working, a lot fewer people would have gotten sick.”

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BACKGROUND: In addition to the victims of the Chili’s Salmonella outbreak, Stearns and his partners represent over 80 victims of the Chi-Chi’s hepatitis-A outbreak near Pittsburgh. MARLER CLARK has achieved great success representing victims in large outbreaks across the country over the last ten years. The firm has obtained record verdicts and settlements on behalf of thousands of people infected with E. coli, Salmonella, hepatitis-A, Listeria, Shigella, and Campylobacter. Total recoveries to date on behalf of such victims exceed $100 million.

More about the Chili's Salmonella outbreak can be found in the Case News area of this site.