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Viral outbreak prompts lawsuits

February 16, 2006

MSU State News (MI)

Melanie Thomas

More than a dozen diners have filed lawsuits against Delta Township's Carrabba's Italian Grill after becoming ill during the Jan. 28-29 weekend.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Monday in the Eaton County Circuit Court, alleges that Carrabba's management was negligent by requiring a sick employee to work and as a result, more than 400 people became sick, said attorney Greg Liepshutz of the Southfield-based law firm Levine Benjamin.

"The managers created the problem themselves by making that cook work and he got everyone sick," Liepshutz said.

In a press release, Carrabba's extended "sincere apologies to all those who regrettably became ill" and noted the illness was not caused by contaminated food.

"We will vigorously ensure that the highest standards of food safety are maintained at all Carrabba's restaurants," the release stated.

Norovirus, also known as Norwalk virus, causes nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, which appear between 24 and 48 hours after eating infected food, said Eric Pessell, director of environmental health of the Barry-Eaton District Health Department.

The health department has more than 430 complaints, Pessell said. A person with Norovirus symptoms is highly contagious and can contaminate food and dishes, he said. There is good indication the outbreak was caused by ill employees, Pessell said. Restaurants are checked twice a year, but Carrabba's will be watched more closely now, he said.

"They have come up with a plan of action to prevent these types of things,"

Pessell said. "We have seen it and are going to make sure they are operating according to that."

The plan includes making sure employees don't work while sick and practice good hygiene, Pessell said. There are no plans to shut down the restaurant, he said.

This type of virus is not uncommon, but someone who has it shouldn't be working in a kitchen, Liepshutz said.

The majority of Liepshutz's clients complained of severe cramping, vomiting and missing work because of illness, he said.

"We're looking for compensation for lost wages, medical bills and how bad each client had it," Liepshutz said.

He added that each client should receive between $3,000 and $4,000.

Carrabba's insurance company, Wachovia Corp., offered some of Liepshutz's clients between $150 and $250 compensation.

"They made some low-ball offers and that pissed people off," Liepshutz said.

The virus didn't stop contaminating people at the restaurant doors, said Lansing resident Sharon M. Byers. Her 92-year-old mother ate at Carrabba's on Jan. 28, became "violently ill" less than 48 hours later. Byers herself became sick on Feb. 2.

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