December 2003

As I said in my op-ed Secretary Veneman: you have not put me out of business yet, as a trial lawyer I spend much of my time looking for fault. But, from my mother, I learned to compliment and thank someone for doing the right thing, whatever their motives. So, thank you Agricultural Secretary Veneman for stepping in and protecting the multi-billion dollar meat industry from economic suicide by instituting long needed protections against BSE or “Mad Cow” disease – even if the cow was long “out of the barn.” These changes over time should rebuild confidence in our trading partners that the US Government is really serious about making our food system one of the safest in the world.

The change requiring the tracking of animals from birth to slaughter or from “farm to fork,” should allow the meat industry and the Government to document where cows come from and where specific lots of meat are sold. That way, meat can be recalled quickly if a pathogen (not just BSE) is detected anywhere in the process.

For me, E. coli has been a far too successful practice – and a heart-breaking one. I am tired of visiting with horribly sick kids who did not have to be sick in the first place. I am outraged with a meat industry that allows E. coli and other poisons to reach consumers, and a President, Congress and federal regulatory system that do nothing about it (many of the changes recommended by Secretary Veneman had been rejected by Congress in the last year).

Does America really have the safest food supply in the world? The Center for Disease Control estimates that each year over 76 million of us become ill, 300,000 are hospitalized and over 5,000 die, just from eating food contaminated with a food borne pathogen.

As I said in a recent op-ed What to do about the “Mad Cow,” our tables, and the entire food industry, can be protected by five available and simple decisions that will help promote food safety – one, track animals from the farm to your fork; two, test for food borne pathogens; three, reconsider the use of “downer cattle;” four, give the USDA absolute authority to recall meat that may pose a risk to the public health; and, five, stop feeding animals (especially those at risk of harboring disease) to other animals.

We must require the meat industry to document where cows come from and where specific lots of meat are sold. That way, meat can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected anywhere in the process. Timely online records would allow meat to be efficiently tracked and recalled as soon as inspectors get a positive test result. We have the technology; we simply need to use it. The fact that the beef industry and the government did not know where the BSE-contaminated cow came from, or where its meat went, is beyond belief. If we can track online a book from Amazon.com, we should be able to do the same with a cow.

We have the ability to live up to the billing of having the safest food supply in the world. The question is whether this “Mad Cow” crisis will be the catalyst that finally starts the reform necessary to stop making US consumers ill and to regain the confidence of the World in our food supply.

Yesterday, Joe Mandak of the Associated Press reported in his story Hepatitis plaintiffs want judge to OK lawsuits against Chi-Chi’s, that we have asked the bankruptcy judge to lift the automatic stay to sue the restaurant chain. Lifting the stay will be our first step in accessing the $51 million in liability insurance held by the company but currently protected by bankruptcy proceedings.

As the AP reported:

“We are asking the court to lift the stay so these defendants can be in one courtroom,” said William Marler, one of the attorneys. “We believe that this will allow a jury to determine how this tragedy occurred and how we can prevent it from ever happening again.”

“We not only need to find out who is responsible for the injuries of over 650 people and the deaths of three, but these people need to be compensated for their injuries and loss,” Marler said. “Having the entire chain of distribution of these green onions in one suit will ensure fair compensation for all victims.”

Idaho state government earned notoriety two years ago when it cut its higher education budget by 10 percent. As draconian as that was, however, Idaho’s college and university system has not seen the reductions that Washington’s has. In the Evergreen State, the cuts have been more gradual, but more relentless.

Too many Washingtonians are unaware of the depth of the wounds left by the budget ax. Too bad they weren’t all in attendance at Washington State University’s mid-year commencement ceremony Saturday.

There, onetime WSU student activist and current Regent Bill Marler leveled with graduates about what state government and voters alike have done to the school and its sister institutions. In Marler’s words, they have “more than turned their back on supporting higher education.”

As they have done that, programs have been curtailed, faculty salaries have slipped in comparison with other schools and student tuition has risen to the point that a higher education is, in Marler’s words, for “only the wealthy, only the privileged few.”

“This is not world class, face to face,” Marler said, in mockery of the slogan WSU adopted a few years back.

It sure isn’t. And the reasons for that are as varied as they are inescapable.
Continue Reading A rare commencement speaker points to failure

About 50 people have submitted paperwork so far to recover medical costs and lost wages related to the hepatitis A outbreak at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi’s. Many of them have already been issued checks, generally for less than $3,000 each. Any claim higher than $3,000 requires review from either insurance companies or the bankruptcy court.

My firm has dropped lawsuits against Chi-Chi’s this month and instead named four green onion suppliers as defendants in a suit brought on behalf of one Beaver County man. My strong suspicion is that, with all of the defendants ultimately responsible, there should be sufficient insurance to cover all of the claims.

As James McNair of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported in his article Castellini named in hepatitis suit, my firm has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Richard and Linda in Pittsburg against Castellini Co., because the green onions connected with the recent Chi Chi’s hepatitis A outbreak may have passed through the company’s warehouse.

The Millers ate at Chi Chi’s on October 12 and two weeks later were both diagnosed with hepatitis A. As a result, Richard Miller underwent a liver transplant on November 8. Their medical bills exceeded $500,000.

As the Cincinnati Enquirer reported:

“Castellini Co. received the green onions packaged in master cartons, ready for shipment to its customer in the Pittsburgh area,” it said in a statement. “That customer may have supplied the green onions to the restaurant in question. The cartons in question remained intact in the Castellini Co. warehouse until shipment to the Castellini Co. customer. Neither Castellini Co. nor any of its affiliates unpacked or processed the green onions in the cartons.”

Living up to his reputation as a crack litigator, Marler is now going after upstream parties in the Chi-Chi’s case. Teaming with a law firm in Pittsburgh, Marler sued four companies that allegedly grew, brokered and shipped the infected green onions to the Chi-Chi’s in the Beaver Valley Mall. In addition to Castellini, the suit names three California produce growers and shippers.

“We have filed suit against those growers and suppliers who had the opportunity to prevent this outbreak before it reached the Chi-Chi’s restaurant and the Millers’ lunch,” Marler said. “Taking this step gives us the best chance of preventing such a disaster in the future.”