Firm sued over E. coli outbreak


Residents got sick after eating prepackaged spinach

REDWOOD CITY -- The son of an elderly woman who died in an outbreak of E. coli last October is suing the firm that manages food service for the retirement home where she lived, saying the prepackaged spinach they served was "unfit for human consumption."

Eighty-five-year-old Alice McWalter, a professional choir singer who was among at least 16 Sequoias Portola Valley residents and workers who were sickened in the outbreak, died after the food-borne illness caused her kidney to fail.

Her son, Keith McWalter, has hired a Seattle-based lawyer who once won a $15.6 million suit against Jack-in-the-Box in a food poisoning case. He is seeking unspecified damages from Sodexho USA, a multinational food distributor that manages the kitchen at the 315-bed home.

County health workers traced the outbreak, which was also responsible for the death of a 95-year-old resident, to prepackaged vegetables purchased and served by Sodexho.

"That (they) died after eating contaminated spinach is particularly disturbing," attorney Bill Marler said in a prepared statement. "The whole state of California was, or should have been, paying special attention to food safety -- especially fresh produce safety -- at the time of this outbreak, since an outbreak in the San Diego area had been traced to E. coli-contaminated lettuce just weeks before."

That outbreak sickened 20 people.

Keith McWalter, who filed the suit, could not be reached for comment.

Leslie Aun, a spokesperson for Sodexho, said "We are very sympathetic to the families, but it would be premature to comment (on the suit) because we haven't seen it."

According to the lawsuit, Alice McWalter was an "extremely bright and physically capable" woman before she contracted the illness. She was hospitalized for stomach pains on Oct. 14, and suffered through 12 days of fever, nausea and seizures before she died.

County health inspectors have said Sodexho runs a spotless kitchen at the Sequoias, having found no violations during several inspections.

The home's operators never quarantined residents during the two-week outbreak, though they did discourage visitors and ask residents not to leave except in cases of emergency.

Sodexho serves more than a million meals a day, and provide kitchen staff, food and equipment to institutions like schools, hospitals and jails.

Tim Hay covers county government and health issues. He can be reached at (650) 306-2428 or thay@sanmateocountytimes.com .