The parents of 16-year-old Carlsbad volleyball player Kayce Galindo filed suit Wednesday against Gold Coast Produce and F.T. Produce Inc., two California companies that state officials say sold lettuce infected with potentially deadly E. coli bacteria to the popular restaurant chain. Pat & Oscars, which bought the lettuce in pre-packaged salad mix, was not named in the suit.
The suit is one of at least 20 claims that could be filed regarding an outbreak of E. coli poisoning that hit San Diego and Orange counties this month. It signals that the companies allegedly responsible for the outbreak could be in for multimillion-dollar lawsuits from a high-profile firm that specializes in going after food companies accused of making people sick.
As of Wednesday, 34 people in San Diego County who ate the lettuce have become ill since late September, and a handful of North County residents remained hospitalized this week with E. coli poisoning, which causes severe vomiting, bloody diarrhea and in severe cases, kidney failure.
According to state and local health officials, the bacteria, which is found in cow dung, came from bags of pre-packaged lettuce grown by Gold Coast, an Oxnard company, and distributed by F.T. Produce Inc. of Anaheim.
Calls to Gold Coast were not returned Wednesday. A spokeswoman for F.T. Produce, also known as Family Tree, said the company's managers had not seen the lawsuit Wednesday and had no comment about it.
However, F.T. Produce's president released a statement about the E. coli outbreak in general.
"We are very concerned about those diners who may have contracted an illness and wish them a speedy recovery," said Family Tree President Fidel Guzman, who also said in the statement that state inspectors had visited Family Tree and gave the company a favorable review.
Kayce Galindo, a Carlsbad High School student, has been hospitalized twice for E. coli poisoning since eating a salad at Pat & Oscar's on Sept. 28. She has developed a rare but serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure, blindness and paralysis.
"This disease has literally been eating away at Kayce," said her mother, Karie Galindo, earlier this week. "It's awful. ... One day your daughter eats a piece of lettuce and the next day doctors are telling you her kidneys might not make it through the night."
As of Wednesday, Kayce remained in stable condition at Children's Hospital in San Diego, according to the family's lawyer, Dave Babcock.
Babcock's firm, Marler Clark of Seattle, has handled hundreds of E. coli poisoning cases in the last 10 years, including several victims of a high-profile E. coli outbreak at Jack In The Box restaurants in 1993. The family of one of the firm's clients received a $15 million settlement from Jack In The Box; others received up to $4.2 million.
At least 20 victims of the local E. coli outbreak have contacted Marler Clark, Babcock said.
Another lawyer from La Jolla filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of another Carlsbad victim, Kristin Sue Rust. In that suit, the two produce companies and Pat & Oscar's were named as defendants.
Pat & Oscar's was left out of the most recent suit because it has offered to pay victims' medical bills and have cooperated with health agencies about the outbreak, Babcock said. He said the restaurant could be technically liable for selling unsafe lettuce, and that the family may add Pat & Oscar's to the suit later.
"They haven't admitted any wrongdoing, but Pat & Oscar's has shown a general willingness to do the right thing here," Babcock said.
Pat & Oscar's spokesman Steven Fink said Wednesday that the restaurant was "a victim" in the E. coli outbreak. The restaurant pulled the lettuce from its menu and fired its lettuce supplier when the county health department alerted owners of the problem, he said.
"Pat & Oscar's has done everything it could to protect the health and safety of the public," Fink said.
Few of Marler Clark's claims against food distributors have ended up before juries; most have settled out of court, he said. If the case does go to trial, attorneys will have to prove that the lettuce in question caused the outbreak and was sold by each of the defendants.
Under liability laws, companies that sell unsafe food can be held responsible even if they do not know about or contribute to the danger from the food, Babcock said.
Other local families affected by the outbreak continued to contact attorneys Wednesday.
"Of course I'm jumping on that bandwagon," said San Marcos resident Kyle Beria, whose wife and son were hospitalized with E. coli poisoning after eating a Greek salad at a Pat & Oscar's restaurant. "My family ordered a 'family feast' and got the E. coli special. Someone should be held responsible for that."