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Defendants settle with victims in Sequoias E. coli lawsuits

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

January 19, 2005

A cafeteria operator and a vegetable ranch have settled lawsuits filed on behalf of two victims -- one of whom died -- of the October 2003 outbreak of an E. coli infection at The Sequoias retirement community in Portola Valley.

Payment of the settlement amounts, which were not disclosed, will be shared by The Sequoias' cafeteria operator Sodexho America and River Ranch Fresh Foods of Salinas, said Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who represented the victims.

The one fatality was Sequoias resident Alice McWalter, 85, who died October 26, 2003, from kidney failure and severe complications related to an E. coli infection. Infections in 12 other residents were also confirmed.

Ms. McWalter's son Keith sued, as did resident Sarah Ish, 85, who was hospitalized October 12 with symptoms consistent with an E. coli infection. Ms. Ish eventually recovered, but was quarantined for some time afterward, according to court documents provided by Mr. Marler.

An investigation by the public health department of San Mateo County found that the outbreak was most likely associated with contaminated pre-washed raw spinach served at The Sequoias cafeteria.

Court documents show that a state investigation of the incident recommended that Sodexho establish procedures at The Sequoias for "proper washing of utensils" and that the thermometers in the refrigerators be replaced.

Mr. Marler said he is not involved with other lawsuits stemming from the Sequoias outbreak, nor did he know of any other Sequoias-related lawsuits either planned or ongoing.

On the possibility that the spinach was in contact with water contaminated with animal waste, the defendants may be seeking redress from the water department of Monterey County, said Mr. Marler.

Heavy rains that fall on land occupied by cows can create sites that contaminate rivers and streams, said Mr. Marler. Lettuce, spinach and other delicate fresh vegetables are not normally subjected to procedures that kill bacteria, leaving them vulnerable to contaminated water, he added.

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