Aunt Mid's faces second lawsuit in E. coli outbreak

DETROIT -- A second Michigan college student is suing Detroit-based Aunt Mid's Produce Co., linked by state health officials to a suspected lettuce borne E. coli bacteria outbreak last month that sickened 50 people in Michigan, Illinois and Canada.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Washtenaw Circuit Court on behalf of Lindsey Jennings, a University of Michigan senior allegedly sickened in the outbreak, follows a lawsuit filed Oct. 10 in Ingham County by a Michigan State University student.

Unlike the earlier claims of Michigan State University student Samantha Steffen that she got sick after eating iceberg lettuce prepared by Aunt Mid's and served by a university cafeteria, Jennings believes she was sickened by lettuce served by a Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches outlet in Ann Arbor.

"This is more than coincidental that the health department confirms the same strain of 0157:H7 bacteria," said Jenning's lawyer Michael Heilmann of Trenton. "The chances are like one-in-a-billion that the source could be something other than Aunt Mid's."

Tainted lettuce was grown in California, processed, chopped or shredded in Detroit by Aunt Mid's and packaged for shipment to restaurants and other institutional food preparers, according to Michigan health and agriculture investigators. The state issued a warning last month to commercial food preparers to stop serving iceberg lettuce purchased from Aunt Mid's.

Members of the Riggio family, which owns and operates the produce wholesaler, said no trace of E. coli bacteria has been found by state or private testing inside the plant on West Jefferson. Production has resumed after a voluntary two week halt.

None of the tainted lettuce was discovered or tested by the state, but shipments from Aunt Mid's appeared to be the common denominator in cases confirmed through medical testing to infections caused by E. coli strain 0157:H7.

At least 38 people were sickened in September in Michigan, including students who ate at University of Michigan and Michigan State University cafeterias and inmates served iceberg lettuce salads inside the Lenawee County Jail.

Heilmann said he also represents an employee of the University of Michigan housing department who also claims to have been sickened by food from a Jimmy John's in Ann Arbor. He said he will file a third lawsuit soon.

"We are advised by lawyers to not comment on pending litigation," said Jimmy John's spokeswoman Ali Goldner.

No new onset of illnesses has been reported since September, said James McCurtis, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health. He added that California agriculture officials continue to attempts to pinpoint the source of the lettuce.

According to her lawyers, Jenning's suffered abdominal cramps, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea that were so severe she was having difficulty breathing when she sought treatment at a university clinic. She spent 10 days in Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital. She was fed by a tube inserted through her chest until Oct. 6, and continues to recover from her illness.

"This young woman endured a severe and excruciating illness, just because of something she ate," said another of her attorneys, William Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in filing food borne illness lawsuits nationwide. "She was so worried about missing school that she returned to class while still being fed by the PICC (chest tube). We need to make sure she doesn't worry about how to pay her medical bills. We also need to work to prevent future outbreaks."

Dominic Riggio, president of Aunt Mid's, said Tuesday, "We haven't seen the lawsuit so it would be inappropriate for us to comment at this time."