With about 40 lawsuits pending against a Roanoke restaurant that was the source of a deadly hepatitis A outbreak, a federal judge is being asked to determine how much insurance money is available to victims.
The question will likely come down to whether there is $7 million or $14 million to be split between diners at two Famous Anthony’s restaurants where an infected employee unwittingly spread the virus.
About 50 people have fallen ill. Four of them died, more than 30 were hospitalized, and two received liver transplants.
“Frankly, whether it’s $7 million or $14 million, there’s just not enough money to cover what happened to these poor people,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents 32 of the plaintiffs.
The famed Anthony’s insurance carrier, Cincinnati Insurance Co., acknowledges its policy covers the losses, but says the coverage is only $7 million. The restaurant and victims say the amount should cover each of the two locations where the outbreak occurred, for a total of $14 million.
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The lawsuits were put on hold in January when Famous Anthony’s filed for bankruptcy.
At a hearing Wednesday in Roanoke federal court, Judge Michael Urbanski granted a request made by all involved — the restaurant, its patrons and the insurance company — that he decide the issue of insurance coverage.
Once that’s determined, a bankruptcy judge will decide who gets how much based on an independent arbitrator’s assessment of each claimant’s damages.
Famous Anthony’s attorney, Andrew Goldstein, said the Chapter 11 filing for the two locations, on Grandin Road Extension and Williamson Road, allows them to stay open while they reorganize their finances.
Much of the outbreak remains unknown to victims who have yet to receive information from the legal discovery process, Marler said.
The Roanoke health department said the virus was spread late last summer by an employee who worked at three different Famous Anthony’s locations, although all victims so far have said they dined at the Grandin or Williamson road restaurants.
The unidentified employee did not know at the time that he had hepatitis A, which usually has no symptoms for the first two weeks, which is when he is most contagious.
Microscopic amounts of fecal matter from the employee, who is suspected of inadequately washing his hands after using the bathroom, were spread into food that was then consumed by the public, according to one of the lawsuits filed in Roanoke County District Court.
The lawsuit alleges that the customer, who became ill in mid-September, was served a tainted biscuit and gravy. Among the claims made against Famous Anthony’s are negligence and violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
The spread of hepatitis A is not limited to any one menu item, Marler said, and may also have been contracted through contact with surfaces, such as tables or doorknobs, that the employee may have touched.
The employee had multiple duties that included cooking, serving tables, and greeting customers as they entered the restaurant.
Hepatitis A causes inflammation of the liver. In addition to spreading the virus through fecal-to-oral transmission, people can get sick from using drugs with other people, certain types of sexual contact, or caring for someone else who has been infected.
“I’ve probably had 25 cases of hepatitis A in restaurants in the United States over the last 30 years that look exactly like this,” Marler said of the famous Anthony’s outbreak.
“It’s just a tragic situation.”