Two lawsuits filed Friday brings the total to four against the King Garden Restaurant, which the plaintiffs say is the source of E. coli bacteria that caused children and at least one adult to become ill.
The lawsuits were filed in Wayne County Common Pleas Court because of an outbreak of E. coli that sickened at least 11 people in September. All 11 people had eaten at the King Garden, located off Benden Drive in Wooster, according to the Wayne County Department of Health.
On Oct. 7, Christine and Alex Conway of Wooster filed a lawsuit against the restaurant. Their 2-year-old daughter, Lillian, was served food contaminated with E. coli, which resulted in her suffering from diarrhea and cramps, the complaint alleges.
Jami and John Pittman of Wooster filed a suit against the restaurant on Oct. 15. Their toddler daughter, Kierney, was hospitalized at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron with kidney failure, said the family's attorney, David Bertsch of Akron.
Friday, two more families filed similar lawsuits.
One of the suits was filed by Julie and Brad Welty of Marshallville, whose daughters Ashley and Breanne were sickened with E. coli infections.
Ashley spent 22 days at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron and suffered kidney failure, Julie Welty said.
Ashley is doing better. "She's amazing," her mother said.
Another lawsuit was filed by Brian and Jennifer Nussbaum of Sterling. Their sons, Jacob and Aaron Saal, ages 5 and 6, respectively, became sick after eating at the restaurant on Sept. 19, according to the complaint. Both boys were hospitalized at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron until Sept. 25.
The Weltys, Conways and Nussbaums are represented by the Marler Clark law firm of Seattle, along with Cincinnati attorney Maury Tepper.
In very young children, an infection of E. coli can lead to kidney failure and sometimes be fatal. In August, a West Salem toddler died from what likely was an E. coli infection. The September outbreak was not fatal to any of the victims.
Like the Weltys, the Pittmans are in a wait-and-see situation with Kierney, Bertsch said. Both girls may suffer permanent kidney damage due to their illnesses.
Kierney "is out of the hospital and starting to resume regular activity finally, but it was pretty touch and go ... there for awhile," he said. "Hopefully, when all's said and done, she'll come back at or near 100 percent."
Jennifer Nussbaum also was ill. A preschool teacher, she was off work until Tuesday.
Even though she felt better, she said she wasn't allowed to return to work until two cultures came back negative.
"It was very frustrating," she said.
And while the family is seeking compensation for medical bills and her time off work, she said it's just as important that the suit "makes the community and especially the restaurant owners more aware of the precautions they need to take."
Both Nussbaum and Welty said they hope the outcome of the lawsuit will alleviate the families' medical bills, but also stress the importance of restaurant owners' responsibility to take precautions.
"It's a serious disease so it should never have happened," Welty said.
Nussbaum said her biggest concern is King Garden is denying responsibility in the outbreak.
An employee who answered the phone at King Garden on Friday afternoon could not comment nor provide the name of the attorney representing the restaurant.
David Babcock, an attorney with Marler Clark, said the firm is waiting for a response from the defendants, but he said at this point "the answer's almost always a blanket denial of everything."
Restaurant owner De Kang Wang denied earlier this month there was a connection between the E. coli outbreak and the restaurant.
"The health department had ruled out any possible connection between our restaurant and the outbreak of E. coli," he wrote in a letter to The Daily Record.
But Health Commissioner Dr. Gregory Halley said he cannot confirm the King Garden Restaurant is not the source of the infection.
"The statistical probability of all (11 confirmed cases) eating at that restaurant and not having their cases related to that restaurant is probably a small statistic at this point," he said earlier. "The owner is correct in saying that all the employee tests for E. coli were negative, but that could also mean that one of the employees might have had the bacteria when the people got ill."
The restaurant voluntarily closed Sept. 26 pending the outcome of the health department's investigation. It reopened Oct. 5 after being cleared by the health department to do so.
The restaurant corrected several health department violations, including a lack of protection from cross-contamination between two types of meat, an unclean blade on a can opener and improper bowl storage in a hand sink, before it reopened.
Julie Welty expressed her appreciation for community support throughout the ordeal.
"We would also like to say thank you to everybody that has prayed," she said. "There's been so much generous support it's been amazing."
The United Methodist Church in Marshallville is holding a benefit spaghetti dinner tonight at 5 p.m. for the Welty family. A contribution fund has been set up in the Weltys' name at Savings Bank and Trust Co. locations.