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Illnesses from beef could cost ConAgra $50 million, lawyer says

By David Migoya

Denver Post Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 08, 2002 - Illnesses blamed on tainted ConAgra beef could cost the company up to $50 million in settlements, a Seattle lawyer representing many of the victims said Monday.

A mediator is scheduled to broker talks in December between the Greeley-based company and attorney William Marler, who represents 27 people - 18 in Colorado - sickened after eating the E. coli-tainted meat.

ConAgra recalled 18.6 million pounds of beef in July because of concerns over E. coli.

If mediation is successful, Marler said ConAgra could pay between $7.5 million and $50 million to settle the claims. Marler said his estimates are based on similar cases he has handled.

Mediation is an attempt to settle disputes out of court. This one, Marler said, could last a year. It's unclear how ConAgra will handle claims from other victims.

ConAgra spokesman Chris Kircher said the company was "moving forward" with mediation, but refused to comment on Marler's dollar estimates.

ConAgra has already paid medical bills for some of the victims, Marler said, as well as lost wages for others who remained at home.

"I think they're taking responsibility for those who got hurt. Other companies make you go through the burning fire before the victims are compensated," Marler said. "But this still doesn't discount the errors that were made at the plant and doesn't solve the larger consumer issues of recalled meat."

Health officials in 23 states have blamed the beef for making 47 people sick, 22 in Colorado. An Ohio woman who had E. coli poisoning that matched the outbreak later died, but the cause of her death remains unattributed.

Of Marler's Colorado clients, 13 are children from 2 to 15 years old. Six clients were hospitalized with hemolytic-uremic syndrome, an E. coli-related complication that can cause kidney failure.

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