Minnesota E. coli Lawsuit Settled


OMAHA, Neb. - A Nebraska meat processor's claim that a Minnesota church should be held responsible for tainted meatballs served at a smorgasbord has been settled, and two families will receive payment.

Carolyn Hawkinson died and Ellie Wheeler became seriously ill after eating beef meatballs contaminated with E. coli bacteria at Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minn., in July 2006. At least 15 other people also became ill.

Attorney Bill Marler, who represented the Hawkinson and Wheeler families, said Monday the terms of the settlement are confidential.

The settlement resolves the claims against Nebraska Beef Ltd., Interstate Meat Services Inc. and Tabaka's Super Valu. All those companies were involved in producing, distributing and selling the beef involved.

Attorney Gary Gordon, who represented Omaha-based Nebraska Beef, confirmed the case had been settled but wouldn't comment on the details.

Nebraska Beef's counter lawsuit against the church was an oddity. Marler said he's never heard of a food manufacturer suing a private entity like a church, although he has seen cases where the manufacturer sued a restaurant.

Filing the claim against the church was a boneheaded legal strategy, Marler said when it was filed in October 2007.

But Gordon said at the time there were enough questions about how the church workers handled the meat that Nebraska Beef decided Salem should be part of the case.

The end of the lawsuit is a relief to the church, which maintained it did nothing wrong throughout the case, said Leatha Wolter, Salem's attorney.

"This was simply an effort by a large company to shift blame," Wolter said.

Hawkinson, 73, died in August 2006 after eating meatballs at the church event the previous month.

E. coli causes intestinal illness that generally clears up within a week for adults but can be deadly for the very young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms can include severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.

The potentially fatal bacteria are harbored in the intestines of cattle. Improper butchering and processing can cause the E. coli to get into meat. Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees internal temperature, can destroy the bacteria.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the E. coli 0157:H7 variant sickens about 73,000 people and kills 61 each year in the United States