Meatpacker wants U.S. justices to overturn E. coli suit ruling

The meatpacker accused of causing a deadly E. coli outbreak in area Sizzler restaurants will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that allows victims to sue the company, an attorney said Monday.

Excel Corp., a subsidiary of Cargill Inc., will seek the high court review after the state Supreme Court declined to take up the case last week. Excel is fighting a Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruling that opened the door for nearly two dozen people to sue the company.

The plaintiffs include the parents of Brianna Kriefall, who died July 28, 2000, after suffering complications from E. coli O157:H7 poisoning. Kriefall, who was 3, died days after eating tainted watermelon from the salad bar of a Sizzler Restaurant at 789 W. Layton Ave.

Health officials have said it appeared that juices from tainted meat supplied by Excel cross-contaminated the watermelon during food preparation in the restaurant. The watermelon for the salad bar was prepared within a foot of a meat grinding station.

Attorneys for Excel dispute that meat from Excel caused the E. coli outbreak and argue that the Federal Meat Inspection Act exempts meatpackers from personal injury lawsuits in state courts. Excel won a ruling at the circuit court level that dismissed the suits against the company.

The appeals court, however, reinstated the suits, in a ruling that said the legal action fit within the federal policy goal of making food safer for consumers.

Attorney William Cannon, who represents the Kriefalls, said the petition to the high court was a waste of time and money.

Ralph Weber, the attorney representing Excel, said the food safety standards should be set by federal policy and not by individual juries in individual states.