TAMPA - As the number of people who have fallen ill after attending festivals in Orange and Hillsborough counties continues to rise, lawsuits are beginning to trickle in.
In Orange County, where the majority of the stricken live, at least three lawsuits have been filed against Plant City-based Ag-Venture Farm Shows, the suspected source of the bacteria outbreak, lawyers said Monday.
Ag-Venture provided petting zoos at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, the Florida State Fair in Tampa and the Central Florida Fair in Orlando.
Statewide so far, there are 24 confirmed cases of E. coli infection - 20 of which have been linked to the same source - and 40 suspected cases, Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi said Monday.
Of those infected, 22 were hospitalized, Agwunobi said. A "vast majority" of them have been discharged from hospitals, he said.
Those confirmed to have contracted the potentially fatal bacteria all attended one of the three fairs, had varying degrees of diarrhea and tested positive for either a specific strain of E. coli or hemolytic uremic syndrome, a fairly infrequent and life-threatening complication of the E. coli infection.
Among the confirmed cases, two are from Pasco. The suspected cases include three from Hillsborough and four from Pinellas.
Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in E. coli cases, said Monday that his law firm filed a suit on behalf of Yvonne Miller, an Orlando mother of three.
The lawsuit alleges that Ag-Venture should have done a better job protecting fairgoers from exposure to pathogens.
Miller took her children to the Central Florida Fair, but they did not go into the petting zoo because they were too busy going on rides, he said.
However, Miller leaned against a railing at the Ag-Venture petting zoo enclosure. She experienced diarrhea and was hospitalized for five days and had a blood transfusion, said Marler, who has worked on about 1,500 E. coli cases across the country since the early 1990s.
Lab tests showed that the strain of E. coli that Miller contracted matched genetically with the 19 others, Marler said.
The owner of Ag-Venture, Tom Umiker, did not return telephone calls for comment.
Marler said he may join lawyers who have also filed lawsuits on behalf of other victims to consolidate the cases.
They include a 2-year-old boy and a 6-year-old boy, and four members of a Deltona family who all attended the Central Florida Fair, he said.
Agwunobi said all of the animals belonging to Ag-Venture are under quarantine. They are not to be moved or sold, he said.
State investigators are continuing to test all of Ag-Venture's livestock, although they may never be able to identify the animal responsible, he said. The bacteria comes and goes in the animals, and tests cannot go back to February and March, when the outbreak began.
"Although positive proves the case, a negative doesn't rule it out," he said.
Meanwhile, Marler, the attorney, said petting zoos need to do more to prevent outbreaks, and that it is difficult for parents to keep toddlers' hands out of their mouths.
"They're sitting in ICU with their kids on dialysis and they're hearing it's their fault for not having their kids wash their hands," he said.
"The reality is, trying to keep their hands washed constantly, not just wiping them down with a handy wipe, it's a very difficult task. In these kinds of scenarios, where it's basically an animal free-for-all, you can't expect hand washing to be perfect."
Marler said in 2002, at the Oregon State Fair, there wasn't a petting zoo, but 85 people who walked through a small animal barn fell ill.
"I represented kids who never got out of their strollers," he said.
Marler added that he wants to see stricter guidelines imposed on petting zoos, like keeping them cleaner, having hand-washing stations with hot water and posting more signs warning parents of the risks.
"We're just not doing enough to protect the kids," he said. "Frankly, the industry isn't doing enough to protect itself."