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25 SEEK PUNITIVE DAMAGES IN SUIT AGAINST TACO BELL

Punitive damages are sought against Taco Bell in a suit by 25 people who say they contracted hepatitis because basic sanitary standards were not observed at the company's restaurant on North Temple.

More than 80 hepatitis cases were traced to the Taco Bell, where an infected female employee prepared food between Dec. 1 and 21 and a women's restroom had no running water, officials say.The action brought in 3rd District Court was the sixth suit filed since the disease outbreak became public in January.

The latest suit was filed by Salt Lake City attorney G. Eric Nielson, who said, "During a significant period in December the women's restroom was not fully operational. There was no running water to allow female employees to properly wash their hands."

The restroom was not equipped with a towel dispenser, and its blow dryer did not work, he said.

"Even if you do get running water, you are then faced with the quandary of how do you dry your hands," Nielson said. "It's a disincentive. It's clear they didn't enforce the rules about washing hands."

Taco Bell Corp. executives said it was an isolated incident at only one store.

"We exceed health department guidelines," said Jonathan Blum, vice president of the Irvine, Calif.-based corporation. "We have very stringent food-handling policies and we observe them. Our employees and customers' health and safety are our primary concerns."

Blum declined comment on the suits, but he said Taco Bell officials cooperated fully with the Salt Lake City-County Health Department's probe.

"They have given us a clean bill of health, and it's perfectly safe to eat at any of our stores," Blum said.

Nielson said Taco Bell fought health officials' efforts to go public with the hepatitis outbreak.

"Because Taco Bell didn't want to spread the word, a lot of people went home and spread it (hepatitis) to family members," Nielson said.

Four or five of his clients did not eat at the Taco Bell, but instead contracted hepatitis from a household member who was infected at the restaurant.

The plaintiffs were sickened for an average of three to four weeks, but none is expected to suffer a permanent disability, Nielson said.

The suit names Taco Bell and store managers Fred Baird, Daniel T. Smith and William Skaug.

Taco Bell offered to pay for medical examinations for anyone who experienced symptoms after eating at the North Temple store on certain days in December. Blum said he did not know how many patrons took up the offer.

Five single-plaintiff suits, including a class action, have been filed in 3rd District Court. Defense attorneys have moved to consolidate some of them in federal court.