September 2004

As Marlene Hunt of the PioneerLocal reported, a settlement has been reached between 49 victims of the salmonella outbreak traced to the former Chili’s Bar and Grill in Vernon Hills and Brinker International, owner of the franchise.

My firm filed individual lawsuits and a class action lawsuit in federal court in Chicago during 2003 seeking punitive damages on behalf of all outbreak victims. The settlement was worked out before the trial was scheduled to start.

Health officials determined the source of the salmonella infection was not due to improperly cooked food, but to employees who likely failed to follow proper hand washing techniques and a management decision to keep the restaurant open for two days even though its water supply was interrupted.

The food poisoning epidemic affected more than 300 persons who dined at the Vernon Hills restaurant between June 23 and July 1 in 2003. The health department interviewed about 1,200 individuals including 305 people whose illnesses appeared related to the outbreak. Of those, 141 patrons and 28 employees tested positive for salmonella.

Marler Clark filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Patricia and Asa Wasden, the parents of Ian Wasden, a two-year-old boy who suffered from Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS) after contracting E. coli O157:H7 last June at Kid’s Korner daycare in Joplin.

“After the first child attending Kid’s Korner tested positive for E. coli, the daycare operators should have notified all parents and taken extra precautions to ensure that no other children became ill,” said William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark. “Instead, they continued to operate the daycare as if nothing was wrong, which probably led to dozens of illnesses that could have been prevented.”

Through interviews with families, officials from the Joplin Health Department and the Missouri Department of Health learned that Kid’s Korner failed to notify 32% of families whose children had attended the daycare and were therefore exposed to E. coli O157:H7. Overall, 26 children attending Kid’s Korner experienced diarrhea during the month of May, and four submitted stool samples that cultured positive for E. coli O157:H7.

“When you look at the facts, particularly the Health Department report, it is obvious that Kid’s Korner showed a blatant disregard for the safety of Ian Wasden and all other children who attended their daycare,” Marler concluded. During their investigation, officials visited the daycare on several occasions, and noted numerous “non-compliances” that were considered “likely to be linked to disease transmission.”

Ian Wasden was hospitalized for nearly three weeks, undergoing a full week of kidney dialysis, seven blood transfusions, three surgeries, and a severe case of pancreatitis. He was released from Children’s Mercy Hospital on June 20, 2004, but continues to suffer from painful abdominal cramping. His kidneys have not fully recovered from the effects of E. coli and HUS.

On Thursday, Marler Clark filed a second E. coli lawsuit against Sodexho, Inc., the food provider for Sequoias Portola Valley retirement facility. This second lawsuit was filed by Sarah Ish, one of thirteen Sequoias residents and employees who confirmed positive with E. coli infections during the outbreak, and one of seven residents who were hospitalized for treatment of their E. coli infections. Health officials traced the outbreak to contaminated raw spinach which was served to Sequoias residents by Sodexho.

“Senior citizens are more at-risk for foodborne illness because, as we age, our immune systems weaken. Ms. Ish’s body had to fight harder to rid itself of the E. coli bacteria,” said William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark. “Ms. Ish continues to suffer from confusion and loss of energy as a consequence of her E. coli infection, nearly a year after she was hospitalized.”

This is the second E. coli lawsuit brought against Sodexho by Marler Clark and Keeney, Waite & Stevens. The first was brought on behalf of the family of Alice McWalter, a Sequoias resident who died as a result of her E. coli infection. “Sodexho to date has shown no interest in discussing a fair resolution to this or any of the cases, it is time to force them to be responsible,” said Marler.

“I’ve said it before, but the food industry in California was, or should have been, extremely concerned with fresh produce safety at the time of this outbreak, since an outbreak in the San Diego area had been traced to E. coli-contaminated lettuce just weeks before,” Marler concluded.

Forty-six residents and employees at the Sequoias reported symptoms of E. coli infection during the San Mateo County Health Services Agency investigation of the outbreak.

As the Associated Press reported today, Outback Steakhouse Inc. this week closed on its $42.5 million deal for the rights to 76 restaurants in the Chi-Chi’s chain, which was beleaguered by bankruptcy and a hepatitis outbreak.

Chi-Chi’s was left reeling by a hepatitis A outbreak last fall that sickened 660 people who ate at a Pennsylvania restaurant. The outbreak, traced to green onions, killed four. More that 300 victims filed claims seeking damages from the company.

Chi-Chi’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a few weeks before the outbreak, due to unrelated cash-flow problems.

Plaintiffs’ attorney William Marler said Outback’s successful bid for the rights to the Chi-Chi’s restaurants would not affect pending cases.

Marler, of Seattle, said about 150 of approximately 325 claims have been settled, with $7 million paid out so far. He said plenty remains in an existing insurance pool to pay off future claims.

“It would be very unlikely that this insurance money is not enough,” said Marler, who represents about a third of claimants.

Health officials traced the hepatitis outbreak to Mexican-grown green onions that Chi-Chi’s used in salsa and as a garnish on dishes at its Beaver Valley Mall restaurant near Pittsburgh.

Two confirmed and four probable cases of E. coli O157:H7 bacterial illnesses have been linked by the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) to ground beef purchased at B & G Foods of Galesburg, IL. The product implicated in the illnesses was purchased from B & G between August 10 and August 16, 2004.

A sample of ground beef left over from an August 14 cookout tested positive for E. coli bacteria, and the strain matched that isolated from the two cases confirmed by IDPH. IDPH, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Illinois Department of Agriculture are working together to determine the source of the ground beef sold at B & G Foods.

I am absolutely astounded that after years and years of recalls the USDA does not have a better system for tracing tainted ground beef back to the source. There are measures in place to recall children’s toys and cars – specific measures that allow manufacturers to trace a product directly to the individual who purchased it – but nothing for our food supply.

We’ve seen this time and again. People get sick, the Health Departments do a great job of investigating illnesses, but no one has the authority to look at a company’s records and say, ‘this is where the meat came from.’ It’s ridiculous.

As Clint Williams of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported yesterday, It’s been a rough year for Cindy Horney. Ten days of fever, nausea and diarrhea were only the beginning. The case of salmonella food poisoning triggered a case of Reiter syndrome, an uncommon form of arthritis. Intense pain in her hips made it hard to walk and sleep. Cindy Horney is one of seven people on behalf of whom Marler Clark has filed lawsuits against Golden Corral restaurants.

The plaintiffs hope to settle the cases through mediation as early as October. “Litigation is expensive, and if you can resolve these things without going through the court system it’s better for everyone involved,” he said. Marler recently settled a case in which victims of a 2002 salmonella outbreak linked to a Michigan bakery collected $3,000 to $80,000 each.

Cindy Horney is one of at least 23 people stricken last year in an outbreak of salmonellosis linked to the Golden Corral buffet restaurant on Barrett Parkway in Kennesaw. The Georgia Division of Public Health a year ago today announced that from early June through late August 2003, a total of 23 people were infected with the bacteria salmonella berta. Of those 23 confirmed cases, 18 had links to the Golden Corral just west of Town Center mall.