WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
ConAgra Foods Inc. and many of those sickened in connection with a July E. coli outbreak will enter mediation that could lead to a settlement.
Attorney William Marler of Seattle said he expects mediation to begin in December and said ConAgra will likely pay between $7.5 million and $50 million, based on similar cases of food contamination he has handled.
Marler is representing 27 of the 38 people sickened and the family of the one person who died in the outbreak. In most cases, the E. coli was traced to ground beef produced by ConAgra Beef Co.'s Greeley, Colo., plant.
Marler's clients include all six of those who experienced hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, a condition that can cause kidney failure. HUS is one of the most serious consequences of an E. coli O157:H7 infection.
ConAgra spokesman Chris Kircher declined to comment on possible legal action resulting from the E. coli, except to say that "we are moving ahead with the mediation process."
In July, ConAgra Beef, then a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef suspected to have been contaminated with E. coli. It was the country's second-largest recall.
ConAgra Foods has since completed the sale of its majority stake in ConAgra Beef - now called Swift & Co. The sale was negotiated before the outbreak.
ConAgra already has offered to pay the medical bills of all those sickened in the E. coli outbreak.
Marler said he is confident that he will reach settlements for his clients when he and ConAgra's lawyers meet for mediation.
"We're going to sit down with ConAgra and try and work this out," he said. "I'm a trial lawyer. I like to sue companies. But I haven't met a whole lot of clients who like to sue."
Marler specializes in recovering damages from food companies whose products have caused illnesses. He has represented more than 1,000 clients in such cases.
Marler represented many of those sickened by an E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants in 1993 that sickened hundreds and killed three children. Settlements that have been disclosed in that case range from $19,000 to $44.5 million. Jack in the Box's parent company has not released the amounts of all its settlements.
He said that one mediation session for 21 of his clients who did not experience HUS will be in the second week of December. He expects a second session in the spring for the six others who were more seriously sickened and for the family of Patricia Pfoutz, 68, the suburban Columbus, Ohio, woman who died July 10.
Based on the results of similar cases he has handled, Marler said the 21 who did not experience HUS could receive between $25,000 and $500,000. The six who did experience HUS could receive between $1 million and $6 million, depending on the amount of care they will need over the rest of their lives. The death should be worth between $1 million and $3 million, he said.
Deaths can receive smaller settlements than injuries that require expensive care over long periods, he said.
"How can you put a price on someone's life?" said Rich Pfoutz, Patricia's husband. "Still, I think ($1 million to $3 million) is terrific."