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Families sue BJ's Wholesale Club

The families of two Orangeburg girls who contracted E. coli poisoning in May after eating ground beef purchased at BJ's Wholesale Club in West Nyack filed lawsuits against the company yesterday, seeking more than $30 million in damages.

In separate lawsuits filed in Rockland County Court, both sets of parents claimed that the meat their children ate in May was "not fit for human consumption."

Both children "suffered damages as the direct result of the tortuous and unlawful acts and omissions of the defendants," according to court papers.

"We are suing because these little girls suffered tremendously, and they deserve to be compensated for what they went through," said their lawyer, William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in E. coli litigation.

BJ's had a similar outbreak of E. coli in meat it sold in 1999 and should have known that the ground beef it sold in West Nyack could make people sick, he said.

BJ's spokeswoman Nancy Sodano did not return a request for comment yesterday.

Boston lawyer Maynard Kirpalani, who is representing the Massachusetts-based company, said yesterday that he had not yet been served with the legal papers. He declined to comment on the case.

Orangeburg residents Dennis and Ann Koesterer bought the 90 percent-lean ground beef at the West Nyack store on May 13, according to the lawsuit.

They made hamburger patties out of the meat, used some and put the others in the freezer.

Their daughter Katelyn, then 6, ate at least two hamburgers made from the meat. A neighbor, Christina Graff, then 11, ate one of the burgers at the Koesterers' home.

Both girls became ill with what was diagnosed as poisoning from E. coli bacteria, which was identified in the ground beef in the Koesterers' family freezer.

The strain, E. coli O157:H7, originates in the intestines of cows and is passed to humans through meat contaminated by cow feces.

Katelyn developed severe complications of E. coli infection, including hemolytic uremic syndrome. The condition, also called HUS, occurs when the bacteria attack blood cells and damage the liver.

She spent more than one month at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, where she underwent blood transfusions and developed kidney failure, pancreatitis, hypertension, a blood-clotting disorder and seizures.

The second-grader faces lifelong medical complications as a result of eating the tainted hamburger, her parents and lawyer said.

The illness destroyed her pancreas, causing the child to develop insulin-dependent diabetes. Her pancreas no longer makes enzymes needed for digestion, and she must take multiple pills before she can eat.

"Katelyn has only recently been able to return to school," according to the legal papers. "She remains chronically fatigued and vulnerable to infections. Katelyn takes multiple medications on a daily basis, including multiple daily injections of insulin."

Her family is suing for $30 million in damages.

Her neighbor Christina Graff developed diarrhea and vomiting. A test performed by her pediatrician indicated that she also had been infected by E. coli O157:H7 bacteria.

She recovered at home.

Her family is suing BJ's for $200,000.

Ground beef purchased by another Rockland family at the same store on the same day also tested positive for the strain of E. coli.

Marler said that the bacteria in that meat had the same genetic fingerprint as the bacteria that infected both Katelyn and Christina.

That family did not eat the meat before turning it over the Rockland Department of Health for testing by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

It wasn't until that meat had been identified that BJ's issued a voluntary recall of the beef.

The recall was limited to meat purchased in West Nyack. The company also has stores in Yorktown Heights and Paramus, N.J.

E. coli and other food-borne pathogens cause an estimated 76 million cases of human illness annually. More than 325,000 people are hospitalized each year, and up to 5,000 people die.

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