Produce firm sued in E. coli case


Prewashed romaine lettuce linked to outbreak of problem at dance camp

The parents of Angela Hadley, a Spokane teenager sickened last summer during an E. coli outbreak at a dance camp, filed suit Wednesday against Spokane Produce.

The company packaged and distributed the prewashed romaine lettuce linked by investigators to the outbreak.

Angela Hadley, now 16, was the hardest hit of the more than 50 girls who fell ill with the bacterial infection. She developed hemolytic uremic syndrome and was hospitalized for a month.

She may suffer long-term kidney problems as a result, the lawsuit alleges. Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who handled food-borne illness cases against Jack in the Box and Odwalla Juice, represents Don and Mary Hadley, along with Spokane attorney Roger Reed.

The complaint, filed in Spokane County Superior Court, states that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Washington Department of Health and the Spokane Regional Health District implicated lettuce from Spokane Produce while investigating the outbreak.

Contacted Wednesday, state communicable disease epidemiologist Dr. Jo Hofmann said the state's investigation identified romaine lettuce distributed by Spokane Produce as "the probable food item contaminated with E. coli O157:H7."

"Where and how that contamination occurred from the point of harvest to Spokane Produce was beyond the scope of our investigation," Hofmann said. "That issue would have been investigated under the authority of FDA, and my understanding is that they were not able to decisively trace back the lettuce to determine the actual source of contamination."

Spokane Produce's attorney, Greg Arpin of Spokane, called the investigation flawed. A food survey to determine who ate which menu items at the dance camp on Eastern Washington University's Cheney campus contained an error, he said.

Investigators corrected and repeated the food survey, but not until after news reports of an FDA-issued nationwide warning about Spokane Produce romaine lettuce. Knowledge of that news could have influenced how campers answered the survey.

"We do have sympathy for the Hadley girl," Arpin said. "If someone's responsible for the E. coli, they should probably assist her, but at this point we don't feel the evidence supports a claim that Spokane Produce is responsible."

No trace of E. coli bacteria was ever found on Spokane Produce lettuce or in the plant, Arpin said.

Arpin said the Hadleys' attorneys were asking for a settlement of "several million dollars" before negotiations broke down.

Reed, the Hadleys' Spokane attorney, confirmed the demand was for more than $1 million.

The Hadleys feel compelled to go to court, Reed said, "given that Angela does have the chance of some residual problems that are predicted to occur in her life."

Reed and Marler have been retained by three other people who suffered illness they believe was related to the E. coli outbreak, Reed said.