Two dozen families plan to file a lawsuit today against Lane County and the Lane County Fair Board, seeking damages for illnesses caused by the biggest outbreak of E. coli bacteria in state history at last year’s county fair. All these folks became ill with a very deadly pathogen through no fault of their own. The fair board and the county could have done more to prevent these people from getting sick in the first place.

The families — all but two from Lane County — face a major hurdle even if they win a verdict from a local jury. Oregon law caps the liability of government agencies. Under the law, the most any single family could recover from the Fair Board and the county is $200,000. I will challenge the cap, and I put the county on notice last January that I planned to bring the action.

The suit lists 13 E. coli outbreaks at fairs, petting zoos and farms across the country since 1994, including three at county fairs in the Midwest in summer 2001. County fair officials were negligent if they knew about the earlier outbreaks and didn’t take more aggressive steps to protect the public. If fair officials didn’t know of the earlier outbreaks, they should have known.

The bottom line is the fair board created a place where people were bound to get ill regardless of what they did. Kids who never got out of their strollers, who never touched a cow, never touched a railing — all they did was get wheeled through a shed, and they got sick.

Warren Wong, the fair’s managing director, said the fair followed appropriate sanitary practices. “I believe what we did and have done are traditional and customary practices that represent the state of the industry,” he said.

The fair plans to spend up to $25,000 to reduce the risk of E. coli infection at this year’s exhibition by installing hand-washing stations outside animal barns, putting up signs and distributing brochures warning people of the risk.

The county should require that every animal be tested for E. coli. Some animals may slip through such a test, but it would go a long way to reduce risk.

E. coli is most commonly spread through contaminated ground beef and water. But public health investigators traced the fair outbreak to the sheep and goat exposition hall on the south side of the fairgrounds. Investigators never determined exactly how people got infected, but said the bacteria could have spread through straw contaminated with animal feces. Bacteria also were found in the building’s rafters, indicating that it became airborne and could have fallen on food, floors, railings or people’s skin.