Electron micrograph of hepatitis A virions.

Electron micrograph of hepatitis A virions.

Allan Liddle of Nation’s Restaurant News reports that two separate lawsuits against McDonald’s Corp. and a franchise operator were filed this week related to a Hepatitis A outbreak with links to a Milan, Ill., McDonald’s restaurant.

A lawsuit on behalf of a family of a teenage customer who was allegedly sickened after eating at the McDonald’s in question was filedThursday in the Circuit Court of the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit of Rock Island County in Rock Island, Ill.

On Tuesday, a separate case seeking class-action status was filed in that court against McDonald’s and its franchisee Kevin Murphy, who operates the Milan-based unit. The suit was filed on behalf of people who required immune globulin or vaccine shots after eating on July 6-10 or July 13-14 at the restaurant, where an employee handled food while infectious with Hepatitis A, an investigation by public health officials determined.

A spokeswoman for Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s said that when the franchise operator was notified about the health matter by the Rock Island County Health Department on July 13, he took “immediate action to address their concerns.”
“The restaurant was temporarily closed at the direction of the Rock Island County Health Department. The restaurant re-opened on Saturday, July 18,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement. “Because this is a pending legal matter, it would be inappropriate to further comment or speculate.”

Hepatitis A is a viral infection that can lead to an inflammation of the liver and from which most people recover without hospitalization or long-term health problems. The infection can in certain cases lead to major health problems, and symptoms including high fever, aches and fatigue.

Both lawsuits were filed by Marler Clark, a Seattle-based law firm that focuses on foodborne illnesses, and the Illinois-based firm of Foote, Meyers, Mielke & Flowers LLC.

According to a statement from Marler Clark, as many as 10,000 people were exposed to the virus before the restaurant in question was closed and cleaned. At least 23 people have been confirmed ill with Hepatitis A, 11 of which required hospitalization due to the severity of their illnesses, the law firm said.

The outbreak spurred a two-day clinic earlier this week in Rock Island overseen by county and state health officials that reportedly provided about 4,600 immune globulin or Hepatitis A vaccine shots to people who ate at Murphy’s Milan McDonald’s July 6-10 or July 13-14. Wendy Trute, Rock Island County public health administrator, said the health department had administered another couple of hundred such injections daily to walk-ins at the county health department in the days immediately after the shot clinic and estimated that more than 5,000 people, in all, might seek out such preventative treatment.

McDonald’s franchisee Murphy issued a written statement in which he said, “No one ill knowingly worked in my restaurant once I was notified” by county health officials July 13 that an employees had been diagnosed with Hepatitis A in June.

Contrary to law, the county was not notified about that confirmed June case of Hepatitis A in a food handler for several weeks, and so it made its first contact with Murphy July 13. An investigation into that lapse is under way and a committee including county officials and representatives of the health care services community, among others, has been formed to consider quality assurance matters tied to timely reporting of confirmed cases of contagious diseases, Trute of Rock Island County indicated.

She said public health officials “assume” that at some point the worker confirmed to have Hepatitis in June worked while contagious. However, by the time that case of Hepatitis was known to authorities, the window during which vaccines and immune globulin shots might deter the onset of illness or lessen symptoms had passed, making a shot clinic ineffective, the public health administrator noted.

On July 15, the county learned through its contagious diseases reporting system that another of Murphy’s employees, who had the day off, was infected with Hepatitis A and infectious, according to Trute. That discovery prompted Illinois Department of Public Health officials to order the restaurant closed for a thorough cleaning and to organize along with the county the shot clinic held July 20 and 21 at Rock Island High School.

Trute said the July 15 discovery of the sick Milan McDonald’s worker led to interviews with restaurant employees to determine if anyone else was ill and additional education at health department offices.

McDonald’s Proud had said earlier this week that “at no time has the [county] health department cited McDonald’s as the source” of the outbreak. Proud said Rock Island County health officials have indicated there are “potentially multiple sources involved in this matter – not just McDonald’s.”

Trute acknowledged that determining “the source” of an outbreak can be difficult and she explained that the state was looking into possible causes. She noted that the 14 people with recently confirmed cases of Hepatitis A in Rock Island County all said they had eaten at the Milan McDonald’s.
Marler Clark, a well-known litigator of cases involving foodborne illness, has represented consumers in multiple Hepatitis A outbreaks involving restaurant employees in the past. Among them: a 2007 outbreak with ties to a Houlihan’s restaurant in southern Illinois that resulted in 2,000 people getting shots, and a 2003 outbreak involving a Pennsylvania branch of the now defunct Chi-Chi’s chain that saw 9,000 people receive shots.

Contact Alan Liddle at aliddle@nrn.com.

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