Fred Minnick and I spoke a few weeks ago about what and why I do what I do. Here is his story:
Bill Marler has won more than $300 million from food companies. In this QSRmagazine.com exclusive, Marler talks about how to prevent him from suing you. Bill Marler is not the man you want to see in the courtroom. Just ask Jack in the Box. Following Jack in the Box’s 1993 E. coli outbreak, which sickened 600 people and killed four children, Marler won a $15.6-million settlement for a 9-year-old girl. Since then, he’s garnered clients more than $300 million from food companies. These days, the country’s foremost authority on food-illness litigation is suing Taco John’s, Taco Bell, and Dole for their recent E. coli outbreaks. QSRmagazine.com’s Fred Minnick recently spoke with Marler to learn what makes this powerful man tick.
On your web site and your many blogs, you position yourself as a hero. Do you think of yourself as the food illness Superman?
I’m more like Batman. [He laughs]. Some guys from Canada described me as the Wayne Gretzky of plaintiff’s lawyers. I certainly enjoy what I do because it makes me a good living, but it also allows me to have a non-profit company where I can spend one-third of my time talking to companies and health departments about how important it is to avoid food poisoning.
You talk to people about food safety, and you sue restaurants and food suppliers. Isn’t that a conflict of interest?
My partners and lawyer buddies ask the same question. But I look at the law as a tool for social change.
Well, you’ve certainly left your mark on society. And it all started in 1993. How did you get the Jack in the Box case?
It was 75 percent dumb luck, and 25 percent hard work. I happened to be in Seattle when the Jack in the Box case hit, and Seattle really was the epicenter. I litigated the Jack in the Box case for two years and then settled $35-million worth of cases over the course of several months….Then, the Odwalla case hit. (Also in Seattle). That went on until 1998. Then shortly after that, I joined Bruce Clark and Denis Sterns, who had defended Jack in the Box. We started Marler Clark.
So you hired the Jack guys you beat?
Well, I wouldn’t say it that way. They probably wouldn’t say it that way either. They were really good opponents and did the right thing for their client. They had in a sense lost the battle, but I think in some respects, Jack in the Box won the war by resolving claims and focusing on their business as opposed to fighting the lawsuit to some sort of standstill.
You’ve won more than $300 million from food companies. With all the high-profile brands you’ve sued, it seems like you should have won more than that.
It sounds like such a big number until you actually think about it. In the spinach litigation, I’ve had lots of conversations with the lawyers for Dole and Natural Selection. They’re always trying to guesstimate the value of the claims. A lot of times, these companies get so wrapped up in the litigation that they’re really not paying attention to protecting their core competency and their core asset, which is their business.
Speaking of the spinach litigation, where are you with that?
We have 93 cases. We’ve been going through each one individually to figure out whether there’s a link to Dole Baby Spinach. We have eight lawsuits filed in six states, all in federal court, and we’re in the process of discovery, starting to exchange documents. The three target defendants are Dole, Natural Selection, and a recently named third, Mission Organics, which grew the most likely source of the contaminated spinach.
What about Taco John’s and Taco Bell?
Against Taco John’s, we’re representing 15 people. We’ve got three lawsuits filed, two in Iowa and one in Minnesota. Apparently, there’s an unnamed grower in California that they have found a genetic match to the outbreak. So I don’t know exactly where that’s going to go. And in the Taco Bell case, we have three lawsuits filed. One in Pennsylvania, and two in New York. We represent 25 people. In those instances, we have named Taco Bell and Ready Pac.
You recently complimented Taco John’s and Taco Bell for how they handled their E. coli outbreaks. Why?
They viewed the victim as their customer…. Stepping out and offering to pay your customers’ medical bills and their wage loss and setting up a 1-800 number for claims, it does two things. One, it shows that the corporation is actually interested in their customers. Two, it also limits lawsuits and claims. If a company is willing to pay lost wages and medical bills, there’s no reason for a person to hire a lawyer or make a claim. Taco John’s and the Taco Bells and the Doles of the world have the opportunity to put pressure on their suppliers to not supply contaminated product.”
Seems like Taco John’s and Taco Bell did nothing wrong. It’s not like they have an E. coli X-ray machine in the kitchen. Why sue the restaurants instead of just the suppliers or farmers?
That’s a great question. It’s a question that the restaurants have the hardest time dealing with.
Any product you buy that is defective, the manufacturer of that defective product is strictly liable under the law. And the [food] product manufacturer is defined fairly broadly. It would include somebody in a restaurant who manufactures a taco. They are strictly liable for providing a defective taco. They’re responsible for that contaminated lettuce even though they didn’t contaminate it. And you can say, ‘That just doesn’t seem very fair.’ But the reality is that the Taco John’s and the Taco Bells and the Doles of the world have the opportunity to put pressure on their suppliers to not supply contaminated product. They have the right to say to their suppliers, ‘You poisoned my customer, and I think that the customer has got a legitimate claim. I want you to pay it.’
Do you ever turn down a case?
We turn down 95 percent of the proposed cases.
What’s the craziest proposal you’ve had?
One lady said her husband had opened a jar of salsa, and it smelled really badly. But he chose to eat it anyway. As he was eating it, he found what they described as a lump of flesh that looked like the back of a human hand. They were actually quite upset that we wouldn’t represent them. Just because you’re grossed out, I don’t think you have a legitimate claim.
So you don’t believe in frivolous lawsuits?
I think you need to focus on legitimate claims.
What about all these obesity and trans-fats cases. Are you interested in those?
Because of our visibility, we’ve been approached by lots of people who want us to take on trans-fat cases or obesity cases. We didn’t want to take them.
Those cases would have gotten more traction had those individuals spent more time working with the companies and legislators as opposed to a courtroom. The courtroom is a good place to seek recompense for injuries sustained, such as with the E. coli cases. It’s not a really good place to change really broad social policies