Seattle Attorney Dominates Food-Borne Illness Litigation
SEATTLE, WA - If your kid gets E. coli poisoning – who are you going to call? These days people from across the country dial up Seattle attorney Bill Marler - sometimes before they talk to the health department. He's made his name - and his fortune - suing the food industry to the tune of a quarter-billion dollars. Now as Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports, he's going to bat for victims of the recent spinach E. coli outbreak.
Bill Marler's office is on the 66th floor of the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle. It has a spectacular view of Elliot Bay and the Olympic Mountains. But what caught my eye were the framed million dollar plus insurance company checks hanging on the walls.
Marler: "These are checks for Brianne Kiner and her 15.6 million dollar settlement with Jack-in-the-Box.
Remember the Jack-in-the-box E-coli outbreak in 1993? In that case, Bill Marler broke the Washington State record for largest personal injury settlement. It sealed his national reputation as the lawyer who takes on food companies when people get sick. He also handled the Odwalla juice e-coli case in 1996.
Marler: "It's my life. It's 13 years of representing primarily little kids who get poisoned by big corporations."
Poisoned by corporations? That might seem a little over the top. But not to Marler, He loves that phrase - and uses it often. Currently he's consumed with the ongoing Spinach E-coli outbreak. Get this. He filed suit before the FDA issued its consumer alert.
Marler: "I knew that there was an outbreak. We had confirmation that we had three genetic matches and we knew that the common denominator was Dole bagged spinach. So I filed a lawsuit about three o'clock and the FDA made their announcement at 4:30."
How did he beat the feds to the punch? Marler says people often call him before they talk to health officals. He's got a epidemiologist on staff, he maintains several websites on food borne illnesses and if you Google E-coli and lawyer guess who pops up first? The fact Marler was the first to file a lawsuit in the spinach case is paying off. He was just profiled in the Wall Street Journal and he's already signed up more than ninety clients in 25 states - some of whom have experienced kidney failure. But not everyone's impressed. Darren McKinney is spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association. It's a group that advocates for limiting punitive damages and other lawsuit reforms.
McKinney: "Before this investigation is complete, before anyone really knows who is responsible and how this contamination came about Marler and his associates have suits filed already. This seems premature at best and rather opportunistic at worst."
But Marler counters - he does know what happened because it's happened before.
Marler: "In the last four years there have been over 300 people sickened and there've been many illnesses and at least two deaths tied to eating either spinach or lettuce so to steal a phrase from Yogi Berra it's de ja vu all over again."
Marler is convinced litigation helps change corporate behavior because it hits companies where it hurts - in the pocketbook. He says it's happened with the beef industry. It's happened with the fresh juice industry. And now it will happen with the produce industry. But Amy Philpott with the United Fresh Produce Association - a trade group - says the changes would happen lawsuits or no lawsuits.
Philpott: "Part of what we do to re-establish consumer confidence in spinach will be to communicate how we have changed what we do. We do want to change the way we do business. We have to change the way we do business."
As for Bill Marler, when he isn't suing the Food Industry, he volunteers at least a third of his time speaking about food safety. And just in case you're curious about his eating habits, Marler says his family doesn't eat hamburgers, bagged greens, sprouts or raw oysters.