September 2003

Marler Clark is filing a lawsuit against the Golden Corral restaurant on behalf of a Marietta woman. She and her 4-year-old granddaughter were sickened with salmonella after eating lunch there this month. Bonnie Bartley’s symptoms began the day after eating at the Golden Corral on August 17, but she wasn’t as sick as her 4-year-old granddaughter Allison Luster.
The same day we filed the lawsuit, the Golden Corral in Kennesaw reopened.
As I said in a recent press release:

“This is not the first time a Golden Corral restaurant has been linked to a foodborne illness outbreak. In 1999 Marler Clark sued the Golden Corral in Kearney, Nebraska, on behalf of victims of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. ”
“In addition to representing Ms. Bartley, we have been contacted by several other victims in this outbreak,” said William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark. “All of these people consumed food they believed was wholesome and unadulterated only to ultimately pay the price for eating at Golden Corral. The restaurant should step up, and do the right thing, compensating victims for what they’ve gone through.”

The restaurant owner’s lawyer, Tom Carlock, said the restaurant received a “a clean bill of health” from state officials this week.

“We got a perfect 100 score recently, and the health department came out here and checked all the employees for salmonella and all were cleared,” Carlock said.

Grandmother Bonnie Bartley is suing the Golden Corral, after she and her 4-year-old granddaughter became extremely ill from the lunch they ate there on August 17.

Allison B. Luster, 4, of Marietta, was taken to WellStar Kennestone Hospital’s emergency room Aug. 23 with bloody stools, constant vomiting and severe stomach pain. She also developed a severe fever and dehydration and lost one-seventh of her body weight.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

“This little girl was really sick, requiring extensive antibiotic treatment and a week in the hospital,” Marler said in a telephone interview. “The restaurant should step up and do the right thing, compensating victims for what they’ve gone through.”
Bartley experienced milder symptoms the day after eating at Golden Corral, Marler said, but she did not seek immediate medical attention. The girl is still being monitored for stomach problems, he said.
The lawsuit demands that the restaurant compensate the plaintiffs for medical bills, attorney fees and any other fees the court may deem appropriate.
The establishment is one of a dozen Golden Corrals in the metro area owned by Charles Winston. He voluntarily closed the restaurant Sept. 9 while state health officials scrutinized it for a source of contamination. Equipment and surfaces were once again thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized.

18 cases of salmonella berta infections between early June and late August were linked to the Golden Corral just west of Town Center mall, the Georgia Division of Public Health said last week. One person with underlying health conditions died.

Although previous health inspections Aug. 21 and 22 turned up no trace of the bacteria, the bacteria was found in a floor drain last week.

Other patrons of the restaurant who claim they were sickened at the Golden Corral are considering litigation.

The families of 11 children sickened by E. coli bacteria in a school lunch nearly five years ago will likely get the $4.6 million awarded by a jury.
A Benton County Superior jury awarded $4.6 million in early 2001 after finding the district at fault for serving undercooked meat in tacos to Finley Elementary School students in October 1998.

The district’s insurers had asked the state’s highest court to consider the case, but the justices refused on Thursday for the second time.

Marler Clark’s Denis Stearns said:

“The only option remaining is to ask the high court to reconsider, but succeeding in that bid would be highly unlikely in a case the justices have twice refused.”

The affected families are glad the court battle is over. Five years have passed since the kids ate the tainted taco lunch, and these families still have medical bills to pay.

2-year-old Faith Maxwell was awarded $3.6 million, plus past medical expenses, even though she didn’t eat the contaminated taco meal. She was infected by a child who ate the lunch and suffered serious kidney problems that are expected to cause her kidneys to fail.

The other 10 children’s awards started at $1,200 plus medical expenses. Children besides Faith who had kidney problems and were taken to Children’s Hospital in Seattle were awarded about $275,000, plus past medical expenses.

Most of the money not spent on medical expenses so far will be held in trust for the children’s education and medical expenses.

Last week the Washington State Supreme Court affirmed a Jury’s verdict of $4.75 million against a small, rural School District for undercooking hamburger that was contaminated with the deadly pathogen, E. coli O157:H7 and was served to elementary students for lunch in the Fall of 1998. Justice for these children, one who suffered severe kidney failure, was long in coming. The big issue is not the money, no matter how well deserved. The issue is that the contaminated meat was sent to the school through the National School Lunch Program by the same Governmental agency supposedly responsible for meat safety – the USDA.
The National School Lunch Program feeds over 25 million children in over 93,000 schools in the Untied States with a budget of over $5 billion. However, is the food safe? Is the raw material prepared properly? Is there poison in our schools? According to the General Accounting Office (GAO) in a study published in 2003, the answers to those questions are a resounding – maybe. The GAO found that between 1990 and 1999, 195 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses occurred in our schools, sickening thousands of children.
The GAO study shows that half of school-related outbreaks were caused by poor preparation techniques by foodservice workers – like those that cost a School District $4.75 million. Interestingly, the remaining outbreaks were caused by unknown reasons or by contaminated raw material. In one instance, three dozen students and three teachers were poisoned by USDA chicken contaminated with ammonia that leaked from refrigeration lines while the chicken was being stored. Health officials found that the tainted chicken showed ammonia levels 133 times the acceptable level.
Fortunately, these grade-school children were not severely injured. But criminal charges are pending against Illinois school officials who knowingly allowed the USDA contaminated chicken to be used in the schools. Unclear as yet is the knowledge that the USDA itself had of the contaminated chicken before it was shipped to School Districts in the Chicago area in the fall of 2002.
Food safety concerns are not confined to the cafeteria. Contaminated foods have also been linked to school-sponsored special events, lunches brought from home and food prepared and served in the classroom. One outbreak in North Carolina involved a teacher who brought unpasteurized butter that was contaminated by E. coli O157:H7 to school. Over 50 children were sickened, two suffered kidney failure.
Do we stop feeding our kids?
Do we stop bake sales and special events?
Absolutely not. For some of our children, a hot school lunch may be one of the best meals of the day. According to the USDA, more that 15 million low-income children receive a free or reduced-price lunch daily. We can not afford to reduce this support for fear of litigation.
So, what do we do to feed our kids safely?
Start at the source.

  • Require the USDA and FDA to publish online all inspection reports, recall notices, and violations of food safety standards for every plant that supplies food to our schools. This will give parents and school administrators a powerful tool in learning the quality of food being served to the children.
  • Require the USDA to purchase only product from plants and suppliers that meet the highest safety standards.
  • Consider serving both precooked and irradiated product in school lunches.
  • State and local School administrators and Boards must make food safety one of their top priorities. The training, certification, and promoting of key food service personnel may be expensive, but the cost is a lot less than the risk of ill children and a jury verdict.
  • Educate students, faculty and parents on safe food handling practices.

A comprehensive and cost effective approach to food safety protects our kids and protects a school’s budget.

The Washington Supreme Court today declined to review last year’s Court of Appeals decision upholding a $4.6 million award to 11 children injured in a 1998 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that was linked to undercooked taco meat served as part of a school lunch at Finley Elementary School. School District had sought the Supreme Court’s review arguing that school districts should not be held legally responsible if ill-prepared food sickens or kills a student. The Supreme Court refused to consider the argument.
Denis Stearns, one of the founding partners at Marler Clark, said:

“Washington State has a long history of holding school accountable when the children in their care are injured or killed. We believe that the Supreme Court’s decision today reaffirms the principle that, when it comes to preparing food for their students, a school’s foodservice operation should be held to the same high standard as any other restaurant licensed to operate in this State.”
“School-aged children are more vulnerable than most when it comes to exposure to contaminated food. Those who argue for lower-standards plainly do not understand what the problem is, or what is truly at stake. If anything, schools should be held to the highest standards. These are our children we are talking about.”

In its investigation of the outbreak, the Washington State Department of Health found that the Finley School under-cooked the taco meat. The Department further found the “differences in the preparation, handling, and transport of meat may have allowed for uneven cooking, uneven cooling, and uneven re-heating at the elementary school. This outbreak and the resulting investigation highlight the importance of regular inspections of institutional kitchens and the need for training of food service workers.”
In declining to accept review of the Court of Appeals decision, the Supreme Court foreclosed any further legal options for the school district and its insurers. Stearns said:

“While this day has been long in coming, it is a day that our clients are grateful for. They will get the compensation that the jury found them so deserving of, and can now get on with their lives.”

There’s nothing more American than the county fair. From Washington and California to New York and Texas, countless millions of people are visiting their local fairs to ride the rides, feast on cotton candy and hot dogs, and to visit those cute farm animals.

Unfortunately, some of the visitors to fairs will get very sick. And the sickest ones, most of them small children, may be close to death before their doctors identify the cause – a relatively new strain of deadly bacteria known as E. coli O157:H7.

Since 1995, thirteen outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported at fairs and petting zoos. Thousands have been sickened. Many escape with a bad case of diarrhea and cramps. But some, mostly kids, have suffered permanent damage to their kidneys.
And some have died.

A year ago, at least 82 people became sick after attending the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon. Most were young children, and 22 of them were hospitalized – twelve with kidney failure.

Oregon Health Services eventually traced the infections to the goat and sheep exposition hall, and investigators believe the bacteria were possibly transmitted through the ventilation system.

In 2000, at least five children were sickened after visiting a petting zoo in Snohomish County, Washington. The cause was not determined, but the children ate their lunches after petting the animals.

In August of 1998, at least 781 people became ill after attending a fair in Washington County, near Albany, New York. Of those, 71 were hospitalized and two eventually died from kidney failure. The cause: water contaminated by a neighboring farm.

The list goes on — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, each sickening people with a bacterium carried by livestock. In 2001 the CDC warned operators of petting zoos and county fairs to clean up.

So what do we do? Banish the county fair? Of course not. But fair organizers can take some rather simple and inexpensive precautions.

  • They need to clean up their act. Sanitize walkways and railings, and provide ample hand-washing areas for both employees and visitors.
  • Stop selling or allowing food in close proximity to areas where animals are on display.
  • Increase ventilation of buildings to reduce the risk of airborne contamination. Keep livestock areas damp with an approved disinfectant.
  • Screen all display animals for E. coli O157:H7 – or require that exhibitors show proof their animals are pathogen free.
  • Educate visitors. Post signs that explain to parents the importance of hand-washing before and after visiting the animals. Post tough warnings at the entrances, emphasizing the risks to small children.

Perhaps these precautions won’t eliminate the risk to public health. But, for a minimal investment, organizers can reduce the risk of sending kids to the hospital – or worse. And, at the same time, they can put lawyers like me out of business.