RIGA - Victims are outraged that Stella Pubs has shuffled its management in what they see as an attempt to avoid compensating restaurant-goers infected with hepatitis A in April.
According to the newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize, there has been a change in ownership of the Stella Pubs restaurant chain since the time of the outbreak, which resulted from contaminated food being served at the popular sports bar and restaurant in Riga's Old Town, at the corner of Skunu and Grecinieku streets.
Currently, the restaurant belongs to Lubdi Company, which was established in June of this year. However, practically all owners of this new company were on the board of SIA Bruko Company, which owned Stella Pubs at the time of the outbreak.
This change of ownership will complicate the collection of compensation by infected patrons seeking reimbursement for medical costs involved in the treatment of the illness contracted in the restaurant. Outraged victims are now banding together in attempts to seek justice.
Normunds Kietis, a musician who was unable to work for three months due to the illness, said, "the bitterness is strong, but you can't be too angry. I am happy to be somewhat back to normal."
He went on to say that it might be fruitless to seek legal action as Stella Pub itself has financial troubles.
"If this had happened at McDonalds, then we could perhaps expect more compensation. Stella Pub gave us what they could. Some victims, for example, have already started legal action and are seeking about 5000 lats. But the fees and costs involved with the whole thing might cost even more than that and the whole process might take years."
He accepted the 1,000 lat compensation gift card, but he reasons that the money lost during his illness was much greater than the compensation.
Lawyer Viesturs Ozolins told the Neatkariga paper that it will be difficult to get compensation now that legal ownership has changed. The legality of the situation is in question, as it would seem that in order to avoid legal responsibility, Stella Pub has switched owners, thus releasing the new owners and the company from legal responsibility.
The Stella Pub's hepatitis A outbreak and the questionable tactics of its ownership in the months that followed have given Riga's citizens a reason to question the accountability of Latvian restaurants to their clientele in the case of emergencies.
Ozolins explained that the transfer of ownership to another legal entity will complicate the situation for plaintiffs, as their demands for monetary compensation must be directed at the legal entity who owned the restaurant at the time of the incident, i.e., to SIA Bruko. If this legal entity no longer owns anything, collection of compensation is virtually impossible.
Thus, the outraged hepatitis A victims will have to prove in court that the owners of Stella Pubs have been superficially changed to cover their crime. If this can be proven decisively, the victims' chances for compensation will rise significantly. According to health inspectors, the Stella Pub in question is also facing a 3,000-lat (4,280-euro) fine for violating sanitary regulations. The restaurant was ordered by health inspectors to shut down this week after briefly reopening following the hepatitis A incident.
As The Baltic Times already reported, rather than covering medical expenses for the 41 highly dissatisfied customers infected with hepatitis A, Stella Pubs offered them a most unwelcome gift 's vouchers for 1,000 lats worth of free food at the restaurant.
The Center for Consumers' Rights finds the offer unethical, as the victims have suffered not only physical but also moral damages. Earlier, the management had promised to hold personal meetings with the victims and to pay compensations in cash.
Though most of the 40 victims may never be able to eat as they once did, all are healthy and hope to put the whole ordeal behind them. Normunds Kietis told The Baltic Times that "I just want to forget the whole thing and move on."
Hepatitis A, a disease of the liver, is normally spread through fecal-oral contact and is most commonly contracted from contaminated food and drink 's in this case, salad handled by a contaminated chef, who probably failed to wash her hands after using the restroom. A highly successful vaccine has almost completely eliminated the disease in the developed world, while infection in some undeveloped regions is still nearly 100 percent. The virus has an incubation period of two to six weeks and is very rarely fatal.