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Plaintiff seeks to add eight to E. coli suit

More dance camp participants, others may be included in lawsuit against Spokane Produce

Carla K. Johnson

Staff writer

The Spokesman-Review

October 21, 2003

Eight people may be allowed to join a food-borne illness lawsuit against a Spokane company. New plaintiffs could push potential damages into many millions of dollars.

In July 2002, health investigators said an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infection at a dance camp was linked to romaine lettuce prepared and packaged by Spokane Produce.

More than 50 girls who attended the camp at Eastern Washington University in Cheney became sick.

Attorneys for Spokane teenager Angela Hadley, the original plaintiff and the girl hit hardest by the outbreak, filed a motion Monday in Spokane County Superior Court. The motion requests permission to add eight plaintiffs.

The attorneys will show "the defendant's tainted produce is the common denominator in all the claims," the court document says. Because of the case's complexity, it won't go to trial until January 2005.

Hadley is being represented by Spokane attorney Roger Reed and by Marler Clark, a Seattle firm that specializes in food-borne illness cases.

Four of the possible additional plaintiffs attended the dance camp. They are Nicole Gilbert, Tara Dobson, Felicia Kienbaum and Kristen Harvey, all of Spokane County.

The girls all suffered symptoms such as fever, bloody diarrhea and dehydration. Two were admitted to Sacred Heart Medical Center.

The other four did not attend the dance camp but were infected by E. coli that shared the same genetic fingerprint, the motion alleges. They are Faith Sprouse, Lurana Sprouse and Geremy Sprouse, all children of Gerald and Dorothy Sprouse of Coeur d'Alene, and Carley Marlton, an adult Spokane County resident.

The investigation of the outbreak relied on lab testing, product invoice tracing and food surveys. It was conducted by public health agencies in Washington and Idaho.

During the investigation, stool samples from all eight potential plaintiffs were analyzed and found to contain E. coli with the same genetic fingerprint.

Marlton ate a salad at a Spokane restaurant that had received bagged romaine lettuce from Spokane Produce. She got sick three days later.

The Sprouse children ate at a Coeur d'Alene soup kitchen that had received donated Spokane Produce lettuce from a grocery store. The youngest child, then-2-year-old Faith, also may have eaten Spokane Produce lettuce at school. The children had similar symptoms.

Attorneys for Spokane Produce agree to adding as plaintiffs the four girls who attended the dance camp. But they object to adding the others.

"It would be too confusing for a jury to address the Eastern incident and these others at the same time," said attorney Greg Arpin, who is representing Spokane Produce. "They're really different cases."

Flaws in the investigation implicated romaine lettuce, Arpin also said.

A food survey to determine who had eaten what at the dance camp contained an error. Investigators corrected and repeated the food survey -- but not until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had issued a nationwide warning about Spokane Produce romaine lettuce. News reports could have influenced how campers answered the corrected survey.

Arpin added that investigators found no evidence of the bacteria on lettuce or in the Spokane Produce plant at 1905 S. Geiger Blvd.

"There never has been any E. coli that was found on the lettuce from Spokane Produce or, for that matter, on any lettuce," Arpin said.

In addition, he said, two other cases with the same genetic fingerprint never were linked to eating Spokane Produce lettuce.

Bruce Clark, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he's not sure if that's true, but he said that in many outbreaks, there are cases that match the fingerprint but the people cannot remember eating the tainted food.

EWU may end up being part of the lawsuit.

Spokane Produce has presented Washington state with a claim against EWU seeking to spread the responsibility if a jury rules against the company.

"The dance campers were living in an Eastern dormitory, drinking Eastern water, using Eastern bathroom facilities and eating in an Eastern cafeteria," Arpin said.

"If the E. coli came from Eastern, Eastern should be party to the lawsuit."

An EWU spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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