Rivals join in food-illness litigation firm

When 9-year-old Brianne Kiner got sick from eating a contaminated hamburger at a Jack in the Box restaurant, the resulting court case brought two attorneys into close combat.

Attorney Bill Marler represented the Kiner family, whose daughter was hospitalized for nearly six months. Squaring off against Marler was lawyer Bruce Clark, the lead attorney for Foodmaker Inc., the parent company of Jack in the Box.

After Jack in the Box agreed to a $15.6 million settlement, the two adversaries put the case behind them -- and joined to became the name partners of MarlerClark Attorneys at Law L.L.P.

The personal-injury firm specializes in representing victims of food-borne illnesses.

"I fought against him for five years," Marler said of his new partner. "I thought it was far better to have him on this side of the fence, rather than have to continue to fight against him."

The other partners are Denis Stearns, who handled discovery in the Jack in the Box and Odwalla cases, and Andrew Weisbecker, who is experienced in wrongful-death and product-liability law.

About 90 percent of the firm's practice comes from E. coli cases, Marler says. But that does not mean that E. coli poisonings are becoming more commonplace. Rather, the number of cases nationwide is holding steady at about 20,000 a year.

Nonetheless, MarlerClark wants to build a national practice. Already, the firm is getting referrals from other attorneys and former clients.

Some of the cases are close to home. Marler recently settled a lawsuit alleging E. coli poisoning in Snohomish County that his client had filed against McDonalds.

Incidentally, the attorney who represented McDonalds was Thomas Merrick, whose firm Bullivant Houser Bailey P.C. is becoming more active in food litigation as well.

The Portland-based firm recently established a food-and-beverage practice group in Seattle and its other West Coast offices. Among other things, the group will specialize in defending producers, growers, restaurants and others against food-liability lawsuits.