The Washington Department of Health (WDOH) and Benton-Franklin Health District investigated the E. coli outbreak, and identified nine confirmed and two probable E. coli cases among students who attended Finley Elementary. Epidemiologists also learned through their investigation that a two-year-old child had become secondarily infected with E. coli after playing with a sibling and other children who attended the school and had eaten the taco lunch. The child developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) and was the most severely injured victim of the outbreak.
Epidemiologists and environmental health professionals investigated the source of the outbreak and determined that E. coil-contaminated ground beef supplied to the school by Northern States Beef was the source of contamination. Although leftover taco meat from the school tested negative for E. coli O157:H7, investigators noted “golf ball” sized chunks of leftover ground beef with pink, undercooked centers. The WDOH final outbreak report concludes in part:
As no other common school activity was identified other than eating at the school cafeteria, it is reasonable to conclude that a meal served at the school was the likely source of illness. Cattle are the known reservoir of E. coli O157:H7. Thus, it is likely that consuming the ground beef served in the tacos was the vehicle.
In a 2001 jury trial, the Marler Clark lawyers won a record $4.6 million judgment on behalf of 11 children who became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections during the outbreak. Most of the award went to the two-year-old secondary case who developed HUS.
The school district appealed the jury award, but the Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s decision and held that school districts that sell lunches should be held to the same safety standards as every restaurant in the state. The decision can be found here: 114 Wn.App.395, 57 P.3d 1191 (2002) The Washington Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Marler Clark also reached an out-of-court settlement with Northern States Beef, the company that provided the raw meat to the school district.