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Suit expected in E. coli case

July 13, 1999

By Annette Cary

Herald staff writer

Nine families of children sickened by E. coli bacteria last fall plan to file suit Wednesday against the Finley School District and a Nebraska meat supplier.

One of the children, Faith Maxwell, shows signs of permanent kidney damage and may need several kidney transplants over her lifetime, according to claims filed with the school district.

Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm specializing in cases of food-borne illness, asked for $8.75 million for Maxwell in an initial claim filed with the district. Opening demands for the other eight children ranged from $50,000 to $725,000 for a total of $2.16 million.

The two sides had been working with a mediator, but Bill Marler of Marler Clark said the district and meat supplier have failed to make a counterproposal. They've been unable to reach agreement on how to split the costs of the settlement, Marler said.

"The suppliers and school district should come together and do the right thing," he said.

"Bringing a lawsuit was the only and last alternative available," said Bruce Clark of Marler Clark.

Eight months ago, a taco lunch was served at Finley Elementary School that state health officials believe included undercooked hamburger contaminated with a potentially deadly form of E. coli.

Although no E. coli bacteria was detected in meat left over from the meal, the state Department of Health concluded the meat was the most likely source of the contamination. The bacteria is carried by cattle.

Eight of the children represented by Marler Clark are students at the elementary school. The Maxwell family believes Faith, then 2, had a secondary case of E. coli contamination, passed on by older children she played with.

However, the school district and Northern States Beef of Omaha have not admitted liability in any of the cases. Last fall, 12 Finley children were believed sickened by the E. coli bacteria, although not all have retained Marler Clark.

Lynn Phares, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, which owns Northern States Beef, said it did supply the meat used in the taco meal.

But "we do not think we were at fault," she said. "The tests were negative."

The meat was distributed to the school district from a U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity program, which buys meat from the lowest bidder. Marler said Northern States Beef had 171 food safety violations classified as critical in the 18 months before USDA bought the meat and some of it was passed on to the district at no cost.

Phares said she had no information on food safety violations at the plant.

Superintendent Rob Van Slyke of the Finley School District also said he did not believe the E. coli bacteria had been definitively linked to the tacos.

"From our standpoint, it could be a prepackaged product," he said. Schoolchildren also were served packaged prewashed lettuce the same week as the taco meal.

However, the state concluded the problem was the hamburger because leftovers from the meal included chunks of taco meat still pink in the middle, indicating the meat wasn't cooked to high enough temperatures to kill E. coli bacteria.

"We still have a commitment to a fair resolution," Van Slyke said.

The district is using the same attorney as its insurer, Eastern Washington School District Insurance Group. The attorney, Jerry Moberg of Moses Lake, was not at his office Monday.

Marler said he had given the district and Northern States a deadline of the end of the last week to make a counterproposal on at least the children with the most straightforward cases.

"I heard nothing, zero from them on Friday," he said. "I told them if I did not hear from them, all prior offers were off the table."

Four of the children were taken to Seattle for treatment at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center when they showed signs of kidney failure. The most seriously ill child, Maxwell, has medical bills of more than $100,000.

The claims Marler Clark has filed are well within the range of settlements in similar cases, such as the Jack in the Box and Odwalla E. coli outbreaks, Marler said.

Copyright 1999 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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