June 29, 2002
A Seattle law firm now has 24 new Rochester clients -- all of them with confirmed cases of food poisoning from dining at a country club in Gates.
Marler Clark, a firm specializing in food liability cases, is searching for a Rochester lawyer to help with the case, said partner William Marler.
In 1993, Marler settled for $15.3 million with Jack in the Box, a West Coast fast-food chain, after a customer died from eating a tainted hamburger.
Locally, 78 cases of salmonella poisoning have been confirmed as of Friday by the Monroe County Department of Health.
Most of those cases -- 69 -- have been linked to Brook-Lea County Club on Pixley Road in Gates.
The other nine still have to be "fully investigated," said Health Department spokesman John Ricci.
Marler Clark has already used the Freedom of Information Act to request records of the county investigation.
Ricci said investigators still have no "working theory" about the origins of the Brook-Lea salmonella outbreak, which is on pace to be one of the largest of its kind in county history.
Two other outbreaks -- in 1987 and 1995 -- each ultimately involved more than 100 victims.
Salmonella -- a bacterium found in the intestinal tract of animals and humans -- can cause severe illness, including cramping, diarrhea and fever.
The illness, called salmonellosis, is often linked to improper food handling.
Proving harm in such cases "is not overly complicated," said Paul V. Nunes, who is chief of litigation at the Rochester firm Underberg & Kessler.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, he said, needs to define food-handling standards; show how they were breached (dirty utensils, etc.); prove there was damage (pain and suffering, lost wages); and connect the illness to a place.
Investigating the facts of a food-poisoning case, he said, "is all done out in the open" by local health departments.
About 95 percent of food illness cases settle out of court, estimated Jean C. Buzby, an economist with the Economic Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She co-wrote a 2001 study that analyzed 175 jury verdicts in food liability cases from 1988 to 1997.
Only a fraction -- 31.4 percent -- generated awards, she said, and those awards were modest, with a median average of less than $26,000.
But some food illness cases win sympathy from juries, said Buzby, an eight-year food safety researcher. In those cases, the illness was severe, was part of an outbreak, caused deaths or hospitalizations and could be traced to a single pathogen.
Among pathogens that resulted in jury verdicts, she said, "Salmonella was a big one."
It figured in 21.9 of the court settlements studied -- four times more often than the next pathogen, hepatitis.