An E. coli outbreak last year sickened about 81 people who had eaten at Taco John’s restaurants in Austin, Albert Lea and Cedar Falls, Iowa, in November and December. Among those sickened, 26 were hospitalized.

Tim Engstrom, managing editor of the Albert Lea Tribune and I spoke last week about the Taco John’s lawsuit specifically and food safety in general.  Here are a few excerpts from the story – Lawsuit: Restaurant must provide safe food

Albert Lea resident Julie Johnson is suing the owners of Taco John’s in Albert Lea and not the restaurant’s distributor of produce or others up the line because of laws regarding strict liability, said her lawyer, Bill Marler of Seattle, in an interview with the Tribune.

“It is their responsibility to provide safe, wholesome food to their customers,” Marler said. “They are the ones who invite customers in to eat their food.”

Under strict liability law, anyone who makes a product — whether it is a taco or an automobile — is responsible for that product, even if something in it — such as lettuce in the taco or tires on an automobile — turns out faulty, Marler said.

It doesn’t mean, he added, that local owners can’t turn around and seek to recover their losses through the companies up the chain of distribution. Sometimes they do that in the form of a simple request and sometimes the owners bring them into the existing lawsuit.

It’s not unheard of in these cases, Marler said, for the owners of the restaurant to seek not only direct cost of lawsuits and discarded products but also the lost revenue from a decline in customers.

“I’m a strong believer that restaurants need to be more proactive in who their supplier is,” Marler said. “Once that product gets in that restaurant, it is too late to do anything about it.”

Marler has made a career on litigating food-borne illnesses and has represented people against Chili’s, Chi-Chi’s, ConAgra, Dole, KFC, Supervalu and Wendy’s, among others. He was part of the infamous Jack in the Box lawsuit of 1993. He also has been part of many cases concerning contaminated water. He speaks to food industry groups, public health organizations and fair associations about safety and avoiding litigation.

Marler said there has been a reduction in cases for E. coli outbreaks in meat because the major food retailers — McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and others — became stricter with their suppliers. As a result, meat packers began testing more.

“And guess what? It worked,” Marler said.