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E. coli victims settling claims

Salinas Valley produce companies blaming county over outbreak of tainted vegetables


Herald Salinas Bureau

Jan. 13, 2005

Victims of an E. coli outbreak allegedly involving contaminated vegetables grown in Salinas Valley are settling their claims against the restaurants serving tainted produce in 2003.

But the legal cases continue while the restaurant owners attempt to pin the blame on Salinas Valley produce companies, and operators of those produce companies blame the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.

Terms of the settlement agreement between the restaurants and the approximately 49 victims of the outbreak are confidential, according to William Marler, a Seattle attorney representing the victims.

Not all those claims have been settled, but most have. Once the final claims are settled, the terms of the agreements will be public, according to Fred Gordon, a San Diego attorney representing Pat & Oscars restaurant and The Sequoias, a retirement facility in Portola Valley.

"We've resolved our differences," said Marler. "Both restaurants agreed to settle the claims with the victims and are now going upstream after the suppliers."

In turn, the suppliers have filed claims against Monterey County, alleging the county failed to maintain Santa Rita Creek, resulting in flooding that contaminated a field with toxic substances and animal waste.

According to court documents, dozens of customers at Pat & Oscars, a Southern California chain, and about a dozen residents at The Sequoias were sickened after eating tainted vegetables.

A woman at The Sequoias, 85-year-old Alice McWalter, died after eating raw spinach she got from a self-service buffet in the facility. She died on Oct. 14, 2003 at Stanford Medical Center, two days after she became violently ill after eating a salad from the buffet.

At least 16 others at The Sequoias also got sick, but they all survived, according to Marler.

In Southern California, health officials concluded that Pat & Oscars customers treated for E. coli had all consumed salads provided in pre-mixed, pre-washed packaged lettuce mixes. Those bagged salads were tracked back to Salinas Valley.

A San Mateo County Health Services Agency report prepared after the outbreak at The Sequoias indicated that the strain of E. coli contained in the salads resulted in severe symptoms, including violent, bleeding diarrhea.

In McWalter's case, according to court documents, the victim suffered from ongoing nausea, renal failure, agitated incoherent speech, intermittent loss of consciousness, high fever and seizures.

Gordon said his clients filed cross-complaints against two distributors and the two Salinas Valley produce companies, Diamond Produce and River Ranch Fresh Foods. Those companies grew, processed and bagged the vegetables that eventually were consumed by customers at the restaurant or residents at The Sequoias.

The two Southern California distribution companies -- FT Produce and Gold Coast Produce -- have settled the case, agreeing to pay a total of $5 million to Pat & Oscars, Gordon said.

The restaurant's case against Diamond Produce and River Ranch is not yet resolved.

"We believe they supplied contaminated food, which is a breach of contract," said Gordon.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the two produce companies have filed claims against Monterey County.

The Monterey County Board of Supervisors rejected those claims on Tuesday. The filing of claims -- and the Board of Supervisors' rejection -- is a formality required before a lawsuit is filed in Superior Court.

Those claims contend the water resource agency's failure to maintain Santa Rita Creek resulted in flooding, spreading toxics over a field where the produce was grown.

Santa Rita Creek meanders from the hilly region northeast of Salinas, across Highway 101 in the Boronda area and drains into the Tembladero Slough.

At some points along its route, the areas around the creek are "subject to periodic inundation," according to Bill Phillips of the county water resources agency.

The claims indicate that the flooding in the E. coli cases occurred on the Chinn Ranch properties, which are west of Salinas along the Santa Rita Creek.

In November, a state Department of Health Services report indicated that the flooding was a "contributing factor" in the E. coli outbreak.

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