E. coli victims sue meatpacker


May ruling allows suit against Excel over outbreaks at Sizzlers

Seizing an opportunity that an appeals court ruling created, 10 adults and four children sued the Excel Corp. on Tuesday, accusing the meatpacking giant of supplying tainted beef that caused an E. coli outbreak at two Sizzler restaurants in July 2000.

One of the plaintiffs, Gabrielle Cetta, now 5, spent 14 days in the hospital after the E. coli O157:H7 triggered hemolytic uremic syndrome, which attacked her kidneys. She underwent daily dialysis treatments in her home state of New York and continues to suffer lingering effects from the E. coli infection.

Brianna Kriefall, another girl infected in the E. coli outbreak, died of organ failure related to HUS, days after she ate contaminated watermelon at the salad bar of the Sizzler at 789 W. Layton Ave. She was 3 years old.

An appeals court ruling on Kriefall's lawsuit in May created the opportunity for her family and others to pursue their complaints against Excel. The court overturned Circuit Judge Michael Sullivan, who had dismissed the claims against the company.

Sullivan agreed with Excel's attorneys that the company was exempt from the lawsuits in state courts because it followed the regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in handling the beef it sold to the Sizzler restaurants. Excel also argued that the tri-tip sirloin was not "adulterated" under the legal definition because the bacteria could be killed with proper cooking.

Ralph Weber, an attorney with Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, said Excel has petitioned the state Supreme Court to review the decision.

"Part of food safety is proper handling at the restaurant," Weber said. "In this case, the restaurant cross-contaminated its salad bar from a source that has yet to be determined."

The lawsuits seeking compensatory and punitive damages from Excel say the meatpacker was the source of E. coli bacteria, which eventually sickened more than 60 people.

They claim the beef was defective, not fit for human consumption and unreasonably dangerous.

Sizzler USA and E&B Management, the two restaurants' franchisee, previously reached settlements with 20 plaintiffs who sued over the illnesses. The restaurants closed after the outbreak.