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Family Sues Processing Company

By Greg Martin

Morris News Service

DANIELSVILLE, Ga. -- A couple who claim their 11-year-old son became sick after eating tainted meat at school has sued a Florida meat processing company in federal court.

The lawsuit was filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia against the Bauer Meat Co. of Ocala, Fla. The suit claims fifth-grader Stephen Roberts became sick after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria April 23 at Danielsville Elementary School in Madison County.

E. coli is present in animal feces and can pose serious health problems, particularly in connection with the digestive system.

Three days after eating the burger, Stephen became increasingly sick with severe cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and nausea, according to the lawsuit.

The family's lawyer said the meat used at school that day, provided by Bauer, tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7. The meat was recalled soon after Stephen's hospitalization.

The 0157:H7 strain of E. coli is the rarest strain, and the most dangerous to the human body, according to John Brown of the University of Kansas microbiology department. According to Mr. Brown, the 0157:H7 strain causes massive bleeding in the intestinal walls. If untreated in the elderly or children, the presence of 0157:H7 can cause kidney failure and death.

Athens lawyer Ralph Powell, who is representing the family, along with Mr. Powell's partner, Kevin Gonzalez, and Seattle lawyer William Marler said Stephen spent four days in Egleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta and suffers permanent medical problems like excessive protein loss in his urine and increased risk of further complications later, such as high blood pressure.

"It (the lawsuit) is about the problems he has had and the problems he will have in the future,'' Mr. Powell said. "It's about the extent of what he may suffer from this in the future.''

The Roberts family is seeking at least $75,000 from the meat producer to cover $10,000 in medical bills, future medical expenses, court and attorneys' fees and the pain and suffering that they have endured.

The suit claims Bauer failed to manufacture a burger that was reasonably safe, failed to warn consumers about the dangers of its product and failed to follow health regulations.

Five months after Stephen's illness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service declared Bauer's meat unfit for human consumption.

Mark Mina, deputy administrator for inspection operations with the federal Food Safety Inspection Service, said in October that his agency needed to stop distribution of the meat to protect people's health.

"We are taking this action to further protect American schoolchildren, those in military service, prisoners and anyone else who might otherwise consume the product,'' Mr. Mina said.

He said in October he had "reason to believe that Bauer-produced products, including ground beef and ground pork ... may contain chemical and/or microbial contaminants that render them adulterated and not fit for human consumption.''

About six million pounds of pork or beef were destroyed, according to information from the Department of Agriculture.

Bauer's lawyer, John Moxley of Ocala, Fla., did not return a phone call seeking comment.

A lawsuit against the Madison County school system has been discussed, Mr. Powell said, but legal issues like sovereign immunity -- the immunity of many governmental entities from major damages -- could make that case difficult to pursue.

Mr. Powell said that he has not heard of any other lawsuits being filed because of the tainted Bauer meat, and he doesn't expect any other people to join as plaintiffs in the Roberts family's lawsuit.

Mr. Powell said Mr. Marler's representation will be important for the lawsuit.

The Marler Clark law firm specializes in E. coli liability litigation and represents several of the bathers infected by the bacteria at the White Water recreational facility in Atlanta last summer.

A number of children, including a son of Atlanta Braves shortstop Walt Weiss, contracted E. coli from an attraction at the park.

In Madison County, E. coli infected two Hull girls a few months after Stephen was infected.

Mary Beth Dooley, then 6, and her sister, Anna, 2, recovered after spending most of June in Athens Regional Medical Center. The source of the girls' infection has not been located.

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