A few months ago I was asked to write something by WSBA about my practice and life as a lawyer. The ask was something like this:
Mr. Marler, I noted that you are a (“the” – I must admit I added that) preeminent litigator in food poisoning cases in our state (well, actually the “world” – I must admit I added that too). Our members would love an article from you describing a significant case or client that resonated with you, or a description of what it is like to practice in your area of law.
I thought a lot about the ask and my 20 plus years of practice, and the fact that I may well be at the downslope of a job that I truly love. In a not so often-quite moment, I thought about the beginning of what became both my passion and my job. Honestly, it has had very little to do with being a lawyer.
I had just turned 35-years-old and was only five years out of Law School, I was a young lawyer in a job that seemed quite dead-end, and then my world changed.
Lauren Beth Rudolph died on December 28, 1992 in her mother’s arms due to complications of an E. coli O157:H7 infection – Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome – also know as acute kidney failure. She was only 6 years, 10 months, and 10 days old when she died. The autopsy described her perforated bowel as being the consistency of “jelly.” Her death, the deaths of three other children, and the sicknesses of 600 others, were eventually linked to E. coli O157:H7 tainted hamburger produced by Von’s and served undercooked at Jack in the Box restaurants on the West Coast during late 1992 and January 1993. I pushed myself to the front of the pack of lawyers. Roni Rudolph, Lauren’s mom, I have known for nearly 20 years.
Dave Theno became head of Jack in the Box’s food safety shortly after the 1992-1993 outbreak. I too have known Dave for 20 years, mostly because I spent several days deposing (he would say – grilling/torturing) him over the course of the multi-year, multi-state litigation. However, a decade after spending such quality time (for me anyway) with him, I only recently learned a significant fact about Dave – one that made me admire him even more – one that I think, that all leaders in corporate food safety, or any position of authority, should emulate.
Last year Dave and I shared the stage at the Nation Meat Association (NMA) annual “Meating” in Tampa as an odd pair of keynote speakers. The NMA is an association representing meat processors, suppliers, and exporters. Dave, spoke just before I did and was rightly lauded as someone who takes food safety to heart. However, it was his story about Lauren Rudolph and his relationship with Roni that struck me in a physical way.
Dave told the quiet audience about Lauren’s death. He too knew the same autopsy report. Dave told the audience that the death of Lauren and his friendship with Roni had changed him also in a physical way. He told us all that he had carried a picture of Lauren in his briefcase everyday since he had taken the job at Jack in the Box. He told us that every time he needed to make a food safety decision – who to pick as a supplier, what certain specifications should be – he took out Lauren’s picture and asked, “What would Lauren want me to do?”
I thought how powerful that image was. The thought of a senior executive of any corporation holding the picture of a dead child seeking guidance to avoid the next possible illness or death is stunning, but completely appropriate.
I hugged Dave and we promised to get together again – sometime, someday.
Shortly after leaving Tampa, I spent time with a family in South Carolina whose 4 year old ate cookie dough tainted with E. coli O157:H7 and suffered months of hospitalizations, weeks of dialysis and seizures. She faces a lifetime of complications despite oversight by the Food and Drug Administration of the food she consumed.
After leaving South Carolina I headed to Cleveland, Ohio where I sat across the kitchen table with a family who lost their only daughter, Abby, because she died from an E. coli O157:H7 infection from meat inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Services.
Neither head of either agency, nor the president of either corporation, whose product took the life of one and nearly the life of the other, ever visited either family, and, that is a shame.
In 20 years of litigation, in 20 years of spending time with Lauren’s or Abby’s family, I am changed. I see the world far differently than most do now.
If I had any advice to offer to corporate or governmental leaders – run your departments like Dave ran food safety at Jack in the Box. Go meet the families that Dave and I have met. Sit across their kitchen tables. Go to their child’s hospital room and see more tubes and wires than you can count. Understand what these people have lived though. Take their stories into your heart.
It is hard, very hard, but it will give you a real reason to do your jobs and to love it.