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2 more suits filed against zoo in E. coli cases

Two more lawsuits were filed Friday against the operator of petting zoos suspected to be the source of a mysterious illness that has sickened 22 Floridians, most of them children.

The suits, filed in Orange County Circuit Court against Ag-Venture Farm Shows, accuse the company of negligence in the illnesses that struck 19 children and three adults. All became ill after they attended the Central Florida Fair in Orange County, the Florida State Fair in Hillsborough County or the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City.

State health officials said Thursday that their investigation had zeroed in on petting zoos operated by Ag-Venture of Plant City as the likely source of illnesses caused by Escherichia coli O157:H7. The organism, found in animal feces, can cause severe diarrhea and, in some cases, life-threatening kidney failure.

No new confirmed cases have been reported since Wednesday, but health officials are still investigating 35 suspected cases around Florida, and three in Ohio and Georgia.

The illness has been marked by mild to severe cases of diarrhea for most victims. But in some cases, the diarrhea has been followed by a dangerous condition known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which has caused kidney failure and requires the use of dialysis. Young children and adults with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable to the illness.

While state health officials said Ag-Venture appeared to be the common link in the illnesses, they emphasized that their investigation is not finished.

The lawsuits Friday follow another Wednesday on behalf of a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old boy who fell ill after attending the Central Florida Fair.

The latest legal action included a suit on behalf of Yvonne Miller of Orlando, who attended the Central Florida Fair on March 13 with her three children. Three days later, she became ill with symptoms of an E. coli infection, was hospitalized for five days and required a blood transfusion, according to the lawsuit.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, representing Miller, has represented dozens of plaintiffs around the country in the past five years in cases where victims were exposed to E. coli through petting zoos. Marler said petting-zoo operators had frequently failed to warn visitors of the danger of E. coli contamination or to provide adequate facilities to properly wash hands.

"It's just so frustrating seeing the same thing happen again and again," Marler said.

Ag-Venture owners could not be reached for comment Friday. The company provides cows, sheep and goats to about 15 fairs around the country every year.

Also suing Ag-Venture on Friday was a Deltona family whose mother and three young children fell ill after attending the petting zoo at the Central Florida Fair, which ended March 13.

Tricia Chace said she and her children -- Connor, 3, and 18-month-old twins Courtney and Cole -- developed severe diarrhea after petting animals at the fair.

Attorney Scott Miller, representing the Chaces, said the children were released Friday after a week in the hospital, but the possible long-term medical effects of their infection still weren't known.

Roger Roy can be reached at or 407-420-5436.

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