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Tristate company sued by Chi-Chi's

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH - Chi-Chi's is suing food wholesalers, including a Campbell County company, in an effort to get them to help pay for scores of hepatitis-A-related lawsuits as it continues to settle its own lawsuits.

The restaurant chain, based in Louisville, has settled 134 of the more than 300 lawsuits filed by people sickened after eating at a Beaver County, Pa., restaurant last fall, said Chi-Chi's lawyer David Ernst. The outbreak, traced to green onions, sickened 660 people and killed four.

Late last month, Chi-Chi's filed suit against three suppliers - Castellini Co. of Wilder; Sysco Corp. of Houston; and one of Sysco's subsidiaries, Sygma Network, Inc. of Lakewood, Colo.

"We have tried for months to get those companies to voluntarily step up to the plate and help the victims. They're refusing to do so and we're continuing to do so ... so we've had to sue them," Ernst said Monday.

Some of victims required liver transplants, although none of the cases Chi-Chi's settled involved deaths or critical injuries.

Chi-Chi's claims in its lawsuit that the green onions were supplied by Castellini, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, and sold to Chi-Chi's through Sysco or Sygma. Chi-Chi's negotiated onion prices with Castellini, and bought them through the other defendants, the lawsuit says.

Officials at Castellini, a family-owned company with about 2,000 employees and about $500 million in annual sales, didn't return telephone messages left Monday.

Frederic Gordon, a Chi-Chi's lawyer, said Castellini and the others are being sued because Chi-Chi's has written sales agreements with those companies that include product warranties. The wholesalers could, in turn, sue the Mexican growers or others "upstream" in the supply chain, he said.

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