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Judge allows punitive-damage claims in Chili’s case

NEWS SUN STAFF REPORT

A federal judge in Chicago has ruled that victims of the salmonella outbreak at the Chili’s restaurant in Vernon Hills last June may add claims for punitive damages to lawsuits pending against the restaurant’s owner, Brinker Restaurant Corp.

As a result, Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm representing nearly 50 victims of the outbreak, on Monday filed amended complaints on behalf of some of its clients.

Attorney’s for the firm said the decisions by restaurant managers, including remaining open without hot water and without any water service at one point, constituted “conscious and reckless indifference.”

“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, 305 people were likely victims of the salmonella outbreak.

03/24/04

VERNON HILLS –Marler Clark today filed its fourth lawsuit against Brinker Restaurant Corporation, owner of the now-closed Vernon Hills Chili’s Grill & Bar. The lawsuit was filed in Federal Court on behalf of Claude McDermott, who became seriously ill with a Salmonella infection, and suffered permanent injury, after eating catered, take-out food from Chili’s. The Chili’s “Party Platters” were served as part of a celebration at work, a celebration turned-bad that resulted in Claude and a host of co-workers falling ill.

After holding off filing a lawsuit in order to give Chili’s a chance to “do the right thing” for him and its hundreds of injured customers, McDermott decided that it was now time to take a stand. He stated: “I truly believe that management made the decision to risk the health of its patrons in order to meet corporate ‘bottom line’ goals of profit. Greed took the place of caution in this debacle, ultimately leading to human suffering which for some may last a life time.”

Today’s lawsuit, in addition to seeking compensation for past medical bills, and general damages for pain and suffering, seeks punitive damages, alleging Chili’s “acted in a grossly negligent manner” and “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.”

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