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Jury Awards 19 People $431,000 in Jerry's Deli Salmonella Case

Courts: Panelists reject defense claim that the food was not contaminated at the time it left the restaurant in and that it simply sat out too long.

May 09, 1998|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — Nineteen people, including a former NBC creative executive and crew members from the TV show "Frasier," were awarded $431,000 by a jury which concluded that Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City sent them contaminated turkey takeout that sickened them with salmonella.

Lawyers had sought as much as $1.5 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering, medical costs and lost wages. Included in that figure, they also asked the jury to award a minimum of $25,000 per plaintiff, arguing that Jerry's food made them seriously and violently ill in August 1994.

In their verdict Thursday, jurors trimmed those amounts to a minimum of $10,000 per plaintiff but granted $86,000 to a former NBC intern who testified she suffered serious and recurring health problems.

"We're real pleased that justice was done," said Howard K. Alperin, who represented the plaintiffs with his partner, Mark E. Fingerman. "Awards could always be higher, but the fact remains the jury never believed the defense argument that Jerry's Deli was not responsible."

During the two-week trial, Jerry's defense attorneys contended the food was not contaminated at the time it left their restaurant, also suggesting the plaintiffs' illness could have occurred as a result of eating food that had been left out too long.

"Jerry's argued that once the food left their restaurant, their position was that it was no longer their responsibility," Alperin said. "We liken that to a restaurant telling you that once you have takeout, you're on your own and they're not responsible for poisoning you."

"We normally sell thousands of pounds of turkey every week throughout the chain," Guy Starkman, vice president of operations at Jerry's Deli, said Friday. "We do the same thing, day in and day out, with no problems. I think 20 million meals served over the past 10 years speaks for itself."

Plaintiffs' attorneys called 25 witnesses, including county health inspectors and an infectious-disease specialist who told jurors she believed that the food from Jerry's was contaminated.

Jerry's offered to settle the case for a total of $17,000, according to Alperin.

The illnesses were reported in August 1994, some by people who attended a catered event at NBC studios in Burbank, where the crew and cast of "Frasier" were filming promotional shots. Other plaintiffs had attended a child's birthday party and brought food from Jerry's to a nearby bowling alley.

Within a day or two, those sickened had symptoms including severe stomach cramps, chills, dehydration, muscle aches, high fever, vomiting and diarrhea.

"We believe that Jerry's was wrong for a number of reasons," said Alperin. "Most importantly, they could have taken responsibility for what they did instead of denying that anybody got sick because of the food they served."

The trial in Burbank Superior Court was not the first time Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City has come under scrutiny. Following an investigation of restaurants by KCBS-TV last November, the establishment was closed down for 27 hours by county health inspectors who alleged several violations of restaurant regulations, including food not properly refrigerated and unclean utensils.

Plaintiffs' attorneys requested that information be included in the case to show a pattern of unsafe conditions at the deli. But Judge Carl J. West granted a defense motion to exclude that information as evidence.

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