MSU student sues Detroit produce supplier following E. coli illness

A Michigan State University student filed today what is expected to be the first of many lawsuits against a Detroit produce supplier for a recent lettuce-borne E. coli bacteria outbreak that sickened more than 40 in Michigan and four other states.

"It's an accident so I'm not mad, but I'm annoyed I got sick. It just shouldn't happen," said Samantha Steffen, a 19-year-old pre-med student from Lake Villa, Ill.

Steffen's lawsuit was filed Thursday in Ingham County Circuit Court against Aunt Mid's Produce Co., a supplier of cut and chopped iceberg lettuce to restaurants and institutional food preparers. Shipments of lettuce from Aunt Mid's have been identified by Michigan Community Health Department investigators as the source of some of the illness in the widespread outbreak caused by E. coli strain O157:H7.

Steffen got sick after eating salad in the university's Holmes dormitory cafeteria early last month. She received treatment for dehydration at a local hospital emergency room after suffering days of nausea, abdominal cramps and bouts of bloody diarrhea. Tests revealed she was infected with E. coli O157:H7.

"I missed class and I haven't been allowed to go back to my job in food service because I still get nauseated," Steffens said. "The hospital bills are pretty expensive, $1,600 so far, and I still don't feel good."

Aunt Mid's halted shipment of the product in early September, when Michigan Health officials issued a warning to restaurants and institutional preparers about the link between the outbreak and Aunt Mid's. Two more cases of 0157:H7 infections were reported to state officials Thursday, bringing the total in Michigan so far to 36.

"Aunt Mid's remains the only source linked to some of the cases. The cause of others remains unidentified so far," said Michigan Health spokesman James McCurtis. "They (Aunt Mid's) had multiple grower sources and although I think we are coming closer, the source of the problem still hasn't been identified."

In the last 12 years, more than 20 E. coli outbreaks nationwide have been traced to leafy greens, including a spinach outbreak in 2006 that made more than 200 ill and caused four deaths, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Steffen is represented by two law firms that have specialized in food poisoning cases and have worked together in the past, most recently representing Michigan victims of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.

Representatives of Aunt Mid's couldn't be reached for comment.