In March of 2005, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) received reports that several children were hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). Health officials began investigating what they believed to be an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and discovered that the hospitalized HUS patients had visited either the Central Florida Fair or the Florida Strawberry Festival in the days prior to falling ill with symptoms of E. coli infection and HUS. A questionnaire with an extensive list of questions about potential risk factors for E. coli O157:H7 infections (including questions about exposures to foods, water and animals) was developed.
FDOH investigators compared lists of food and animal vendors exhibiting at the Central Florida Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival and quickly determined that exposure occurred in an animal setting. The two fairs had only one vendor in common, an exhibitor of a farm animal petting zoo, AgVenture Farms. In conversations with the AgVenture owner investigators learned that the same animals had been exhibited once before, at the Florida State Fair held in February, 2005.
Soil samples and environmental swabs were obtained from the petting zoo exhibit areas of the fairs during an environmental investigation. One hundred sixty eight animals exhibited at the fair, including the 37 animals exhibited at the AgVenture Farms petting zoo exhibit, were also cultured. A genetically indistinguishable strain of E. coli O157:H7 from that isolated from outbreak victims was isolated from samples at the petting zoo exhibit areas and from 6 animals from the AgVenture Farms petting zoo.
Ultimately, health officials counted 22 confirmed, 45 suspect and 6 secondary cases from 20 Florida counties as victims of the E. coli outbreak. Most cases were infected at either the Central Florida Fair or the Florida Strawberry Festival (only 3 cases were associated with the Florida State Fair). Twelve cases developed HUS.
Marler Clark represented several families in claims against the State of Florida, the Florida Strawberry Festival, and AgVenture Farms, including two individuals who developed HUS. The law firm resolved all claims in March, 2007.