The Associated Press
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) - An upstate New York man who fell ill with E. coli after eating food from a Taco Bell restaurant filed a lawsuit Monday accusing the restaurant chain and a California farm of negligence and breach of warranty for serving tainted food.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Jared Keller said he became ill after eating at a Taco Bell in Utica, N.Y., on Nov. 25 and had to be hospitalized for two days.
Keller said the companies failed in their obligation "to prepare, serve and sell food that was fit for human consumption" and violated federal, state and local food-safety regulations.
Taco Bell has said green onions, also known as scallions, grown at a California farm are the suspected source of the outbreak, which has sickened people in at least six states.
The chain removed green onions from its 5,800 restaurants after testing by an independent lab suggested the bacteria may have come from the scallions.
The number of New Yorkers who may have been sickened by E. coli at Taco Bell restaurants totaled 311 on Monday, up from 220 Friday, according to the state health department.
Of those cases, 22 are confirmed part of the outbreak and state testing on 14 of those victims showed a "DNA fingerprint" matching a strain of E. coli found on vegetables from Taco Bell.
Most of the cases - 233 - are in Nassau and Suffolk counties, but officials reported the illness in 18 counties, with a cluster of 24 cases in Oneida County near Utica.
In addition to Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc., the parent of Taco Bell, the lawsuit also named as defendants Boskovich Farms Inc., of Oxnard, Calif., and Ready Pac Produce Inc., of Irwindale, Calif. Keller, 28, is seeking unspecified damages, said attorney Drew Falkenstein, whose Seattle-based law firm, Marler Clark, has been involved in numerous food-borne illness lawsuits over the last several years and is representing more than a dozen clients in the latest outbreak.
"At this point, we are looking for an amount that will fairly and reasonably compensate Jared for what he has been through and what he still has to go through," Falkenstein said.
Keller is still recovering from his illness, which already has left him with thousands of dollars in medical expenses, Falkenstein said.
Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch said the company had no comment on the lawsuit. "All our efforts are focused on helping authorities get to the bottom of this," Poetsch said. "But I can say we are very concerned about all the people who have gotten ill."
Taco Bell said it was moving Monday to reopen many restaurants in the Northeast after throwing out all food items, sanitizing the facilities and re-stocking them.
At least 25 restaurants in the Northeast had reopened as of Monday morning, with additional re-openings possible later in the day, the company said.
The 11-page lawsuit accused the defendants of breaching their guarantee to provide safe food to consumers by allowing the sale of a contaminated product.
It also claimed the defendants were negligent in the processing, manufacture, packaging and distribution of a contaminated food product.
According to the lawsuit, contaminated onions from Boskovich Farms also were implicated in a 2003 hepatitis A outbreak that sickened hundreds at a Chi Chi's restaurant in western Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit also noted that green onions from Taco Bell restaurants were implicated in a 2000 hepatitis A outbreak in Florida, Kentucky, and Nevada.
E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a common and ordinarily harmless intestinal bacteria.
According to the CDC, the strain of E. coli that caused the infections is often found in the intestines of healthy goats, sheep and cattle.
It can be spread if people don't take steps such as thoroughly washing their hands.