BY MARGARET McHUGH
A year after a vicious strain of E. coli bacteria ravaged a 20-month-old Parsippany boy, his parents have filed suit against a neighborhood butcher shop that they claim sold them contaminated hamburger patties.
In legal papers filed yesterday in Superior Court in Morristown, Thomas and Lorraine Brayton blamed Karl Ehmer Quality Meat Inc. with selling them tainted ground beef that led to the death of Nicolaus Brayton on Aug. 1, 2000, 10 days after eating meat at the family's backyard barbecue.
"Clearly, Karl Ehmer is strictly liable as a manufacturer of ground meat," said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who represented victims in the deadly 1992 E. coli outbreak from undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers in the Pacific Northwest.
The New Jersey Health Department determined the E. coli bacteria in Nicolaus Brayton's stool matched the strain found in unused patties in the Brayton's freezer. However, the department was unable to conclude that the meat was contaminated before the Brayton's bought it on June 10, said department spokesman Dennis McGowan.
"It was either contaminated meat or improperly handled meat," McGowan said.
Escherichia coli 0157:H7 is found in the intestines of some cattle, and can be spread through the slaughtering process. But the bacteria also can get into water supplies and uncooked foods, and it can be passed from one person to another, or transferred from contaminated utensils.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to pinpoint the source of the tainted beef that Nicolaus Brayton ate, but Elizabeth Gaston, spokeswoman for the agency's food safety and inspection service, said yesterday she did not know the outcome of that investigation.
The state probe identified Karl Ehmer's meat distributor, but Marler opted against naming other defendants in the lawsuit because he doesn't have any concrete proof against the distributor or the companies he believes supplied the meat.
Butcher Martin Hauser, who has owned the Karl Ehmer shop in Lake Hiawatha for 25 years, said he feels sorry for the Braytons but doesn't believe he is at fault.
"Inspectors were in and they didn't find anything here. They didn't close us up," said Hauser, who has been a butcher 50 of his 70 years. The shop grinds the meat on the premises to make ground beef.
Parsippany Health Officer Wayne Croughn said the tidy store has always passed inspections.
"I still don't know the answer" of where the tainted meat came from, Croughn said. "I'm still questioning it."
After buying the two boxes of beef patties, the Braytons froze them, and took them to the shore for vacation. They brought home the unused patties, some of which they ate on July 22.
Unable to bear being home for the anniversary of Nicolaus' death, the Braytons left town, said Morristown attorney Bernard Recenello, co-counsel with Marler. "They just wanted to be away. They want their privacy respected right now."
None of the other 116 people infected with the E. coli strain in New Jersey last year died from the bacteria, McGowan said. So far this year, 13 cases have been reported, but none was fatal.
The bacteria is killed when the meat is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. To avoid contamination, health experts recommend washing hands and utensils in hot soapy water after contact with raw meats and raw meat juices.
More than 73,000 cases of infection occur in the United States each year, with about 60 resulting in death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The entire Brayton family, including Nicolaus' twin sister, Samantha, developed diarrhea and nausea on July 23, the day after the backyard cookout, the lawsuit said. Three days later, the boy's condition worsened, and after days of diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever and no appetite, he was hospitalized.
The bacterial infection had developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome, causing his red blood cell and platelet counts to plummet. He suffered strokes, and his kidneys failed and he stopped breathing. He was taken off life support after CAT scans revealed a brain- bleed.
Marler said he spent the past seven months trying to settle the Brayton's case without having to sue. "We just don't seem to be getting anywhere," he said.