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Lawsuits pile up for Iowa egg producer

by Clark Kauffman, Des Moines Register

September 21, 2010

An 11-year-old girl stricken with crippling nausea during a Fourth of July camping trip in California.

A 30-year-old woman hospitalized after eating pastry at a graduation party.

A child hospitalized for a week after eating banana pudding on a trip through North Carolina.

Three federal lawsuits filed on behalf of children and adults on the East and West coasts are seeking damages from Wright County Egg, the Iowa company linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened an estimated 1,600 people and prompted the recall of more than half a billion eggs.


Wright County Egg has not yet filed a response to the lawsuits, and the company's attorney could not be reached for comment Monday.

The claims are among the first of what could become a wave of lawsuits against Iowa egg producer Jack DeCoster, whose family owns and operates Wright County Egg. A class-action lawsuit has been initiated in Illinois, and two unrelated, individual lawsuits have been filed in the Texas and Minnesota state courts.

The three federal lawsuits are being handled by Seattle attorney William Marler, who specializes in food-poisoning cases, along with Des Moines attorney Steve Wandro.

Each of the three plaintiffs accuses Wright County Egg of negligence, and each seeks unspecified damages in excess of $75,000.

One of the plaintiffs is Jennifer Holt, a 37-year-old woman from California who is suing on behalf of her 11-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Shea Holt, a softball player in the family's hometown of Newbury Park.

The lawsuit says that on July 1 and 2, Jennifer made breakfast for her daughter using eggs she had purchased at a Ralph's supermarket. Ralph's had purchased its eggs from Wright County Egg.

While traveling with her father to a campsite on July 4, Jacqueline began suffering from headaches, cramps and nausea. At 1 a.m. the next day, she began vomiting and experiencing diarrhea.

The family cut short its holiday camping trip, but during the seven-hour ride home, Jacqueline's symptoms worsened. The next day, she was unable to consume food or liquid and was taken to the emergency room at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Jacqueline was admitted to the hospital, suffering from what the lawsuit describes as intense pain that caused her to cry inconsolably. Her doctors were unable to provide pain medication for fear that it would cause her symptoms to worsen.

After three days and a seven-pound weight loss, Jacqueline was diagnosed with salmonella poisoning and was discharged from the hospital. She was kept on a restricted diet for one week and was unable to compete her team's final softball tournament because of her weakened state.

The Ventura County Health Department identified the strain of salmonella Jacqueline contracted as the strain implicated in the recent egg recall.

According to the lawsuit, Jacqueline's family incurred $20,000 worth of medical expenses related to her illness.

The Holts' experience is similar to that of a Massachusetts family who dined in April at Bullock's Barbecue, a North Carolina restaurant that health officials have tied to a salmonella outbreak that sickened dozens of people.

The restaurant was allegedly using Wright County Egg products in its banana pudding in April, when Daniel and Libby Sands of Newton, Mass., stopped to eat there with their young daughter.

The daughter, who isn't identified in the lawsuit, allegedly ate the banana pudding, became ill two days later and was eventually hospitalized for seven days. She was diagnosed with salmonella poisoning.

Four weeks later and 2,700 miles to the west, Sarah Lewis attended a graduation banquet where she ate a custard-filled pastry for dessert. It was later confirmed by the California Department of Health that the pastry's filling was made with eggs sold by Wright County Egg.

Two days after the banquet, Lewis began experiencing cramps and diarrhea. Within 24 hours, she was admitted to a local hospital where she remained for four days, her lawsuit states. Two weeks later, she was treated at a local gastroenterology clinic for ongoing cramps and diarrhea. On June 23, 24 days after the banquet, Lewis was still suffering from cramps and gastrointestinal distress. She was readmitted to the hospital for five days of treatment and monitoring.

According to the lawsuit she later filed against Wright County Egg, officials with the Santa Clara County Health Department later confirmed the strain of salmonella Lewis contracted was the same as the one identified in the Wright County Egg recall.

Lewis declined to comment on her lawsuit until Wednesday's congressional hearing, at which she is expected to appear.

Marler, the attorney for Lewis, recently secured a court order allowing him and three hired experts to inspect and photograph the Wright County Egg plant in Galt.

The court order stipulates that the information gleaned from the visit can be shared with other litigants, but must otherwise be kept confidential.

Marler said Monday he is looking forward to the Iowa visit, which is currently planned for Oct. 5.

"I grew up on a small farm, and we had chickens, so I know where eggs generally come from," he recently blogged.

"I must admit, however, seeing how eggs are manufactured on a massive scale is something I have never seen. It looks to be an interesting and eye-opening experience."

In a recent blog post headlined "Wright County Egg owner, DeCoster, seems to be one bad egg," Marler detailed DeCoster's history of regulatory violations, then added, "I hope these guys have good lawyers and lots of insurance."

Marler began specializing in food-poisoning cases in 1993 after representing Brianne Kiner, a 10-year-old girl who was stricken with the E. coli bacteria after eating an undercooked hamburger from a Jack in the Box restaurant. Marler won a $15.6 million settlement for his client, who was in a coma for 40 days and sustained serious, lifelong injuries.

Public health officials have said the Jack in the Box outbreak killed four people and sickened hundreds.

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