Seattle attorney is representing 5 of 6 victims in E. coli outbreak

Dining with Bill Marler can be an unusual experience.

Marler, a Seattle attorney, is one of the nation's top litigators of lawsuits resulting from food-borne illness. His clients include five of the six victims of the E. coli outbreak in August at Habaneros in Fairview Heights.

During a late meal recently at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, Marler split a bottle of red wine and crab cake appetizer with Patti Waller, his firm's epidemiologist. She had the sea scallops. He ordered a salad.

"I haven't eaten a hamburger since Jack in the Box," Marler said, referring to the massive 1993 E. coli outbreak on the West Coast that served as his first experience with his narrow specialty.

Marler talked enthusiastically about his work, about helping people and "teaching companies why it's a bad idea to poison people." He peppered his speech with frequent mention of bloody diarrhea and cow feces. Fortunately, at that late hour, the restaurant was near empty.

"The level of trust we have toward our food supply, in my view, is unwarranted," Marler said, taking another bite of his salad.

Marler was in St. Louis two weeks after the Habaneros outbreak was first publicized. He'd been contacted by two of the victims' families. He doesn't go trolling for business, he said. He's been involved in several high-profile outbreaks: from salmonella in fruit juices to E. coli at an Atlanta water park.

Marler said he hopes to avoid filing suit in the Habaneros case. He has been talking with the restaurant's insurance carrier to work out payment for the victims' medical bills. He estimated that the most seriously injured, Patty Timko, would have bills in excess of $250,000.