Chi-Chi’s hepatitis A outbreak litigation
Pennsylvania State health officials first learned of a potential HAV outbreak from emergency room doctors in Beaver County, who reported an unusually high number of hepatitis A cases in late October, 2003. Investigators from the health department began investigating the people who had fallen ill, and determined that the common thread for all was having eaten at the Chi Chi’s restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall. Once the department isolated the restaurant as the probable source of the outbreak, Chi Chi’s closed the restaurant voluntarily and it remained closed for a number of weeks.
Ultimately, over 650 confirmed cases, both primary and secondary, were linked to this outbreak. The victims included at least 13 employees of the Chi Chi’s restaurant, and numerous residents of six other states. Three persons died as a consequence of their hepatitis A illness. In addition, more than 9,000 persons who had eaten at the restaurant during the period of potential exposure, or who had been exposed to ill persons, obtained immune globulin shots as protection against the hepatitis A virus.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), conducted further studies investigating the incident. Preliminary analysis of a case-control study indicated green onions were the probable source of this outbreak.
The green onions were typically shipped to the restaurant in boxes, and stored and refrigerated in a bucket of ice. They were eventually chopped up, and utilized in food served at the restaurant, often uncooked, as in the preparation of the mild salsa. “Preliminary trace-back information indicated that the green onions supplied to Chi Chi’s had been grown in Mexico.”
An increasing proportion of reported foodborne outbreaks have been linked to fresh produce. Previous hepatitis A outbreaks have been linked to green onions, and have involved patrons of a single restaurant. The outbreak at Chi Chi’s was unusually large, however. “Several characteristics of the way food was prepared and served in [Chi Chi’s restaurant] could have contributed to the outbreak’s size, including (1) multiple opportunities for intermingling of uncontaminated and contaminated green onions in a common bucket for 5 days with the ice in which they were shipped and (2) serving contaminated items with a relatively long shelf life (e.g., mild salsa) to a large proportion of patrons over several days.”
The FDA issued a statement dated December 9, 2003, reaffirming that this outbreak, as well as others recently, was associated with eating raw or undercooked green onions. The investigation and trace-backs by the state health department, the CDC, and the FDA, confirmed that the source of the green onions in the outbreak had been traced to Mexico.
Chi Chi’s had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware on October 8, 2003, prior to the outbreak of illnesses. That Bankruptcy Court, by Order dated February 17, 2004, modified the automatic stay of proceedings against Chi Chi’s, to allow claimants to attempt to mediate and settle their claims, with the settlements to be primarily paid by Chi Chi’s insurers. The hepatitis A lawyers at Marler Clark successfully resolved the claims of 78 victims of the hepatitis A outbreak linked to the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi’s restaurant.
On December 15, 2005, the US Bankruptcy Court in Delaware approved the proposed settlement of the class action on behalf of the approximately 9,300 persons who obtained immune globulin shots for immunization during the November 2003 hepatitis A outbreak associated with the Chi Chi’s restaurant in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The $800,000.00 settlement fund was distributed amongst the 4,991 claimants who returned completed claim forms by the October 24, 2005, deadline.
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Two lawsuits filed against Chi-Chi’s on behalf of hepatitis A outbreak victims
Chi-Chi’s class action settlement checks on the way; attorneys’ fees donated to local high school foundation
More about the Chi-Chi’s hepatitis A outbreak can be found on the Marler Clark-sponsored site about hepatitis A.