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O’Charley’s plaintiff dies, cause undetermined

A Roane County dignitary who filed a lawsuit against the O’Charley’s restaurant chain has died.

Mike L. Smith, president of the Roane Alliance, died at his home Sunday, Oct. 26.

The cause of death has not been released.

Smith filed a lawsuit in Knox County Circuit Court earlier this month against the Nashville-based restaurant chain alleging he became severely ill with hepatitis A after eating at the Turkey Creek location Sept. 4. He was seeking $3 million in damages.

The lawsuit says he was diagnosed with hepatitis A and while in the University of Tennessee Medical Center critical care unit his liver and kidneys shut down and he fell into a “coma-like unresponsive state for approximately four days.”

He was in intensive care until Sept. 26, the lawsuit says.

Death from hepatitis A is very rare, but Smith’s attorney thinks it was a factor.

James Scott, the attorney representing Smith, said they “could end their complaint and make it a wrongful death suit” against O’Charley’s.

Scott said the move could “potentially come in the near future” if the claim is “cooperated by the medical evidence.”

The state’s Medical Examiner’s office is conducting an autopsy to determine whether Smith’s death was caused by complications from hepatitis A, he added.

The Knox County Health Department traced the outbreak to the Turkey Creek O’Charley’s Sept. 18.

Initial investigations linked the outbreak to an infected food handler who might have passed it to others through poor hygiene.

Mark Jones, director of the Knox County Health Department, said Monday that preliminary reports now link the outbreak to green onions that “came from the west.”

The Food and Drug Administration is currently trying to trace the location the green onions came from, Jones added.

“Preliminary reports say that the (O’Charley’s) employee got it from the onions,” he said.

Jones said the green onions were received in August and he is not sure if there was “more than one box” carrying hepatitis A.

The link to green onions was made after interviewing hundreds of people who dined at the restaurant during the time of the outbreak, according to a Knox County Health Department press release.

“By comparing menu items eaten by O’Charley’s customers who were ill to menu items eaten by patrons who did not become ill, we were able to narrow the possibilities down to several dishes served by the restaurant,” Jones said. “When we looked at the food items contained in these dishes, green onions account for the largest number of cases and seem the most likely source.”

According to the press release, health officials felt they have identified the majority of cases of hepatitis A directly resulting from exposure at O’Charley’s, but urge vigilance in looking for new cases occurring among people exposed to the people who became ill in September.

Health officials will continue heightened monitoring through medical offices, emergency rooms and day care centers through November.

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