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Suit filed in tainted school lunch incident

A civil lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of the Laraway School students and teachers who say a St. Louis storage facility is responsible for the ammonia-tainted chicken they ate as part of a school lunch in November.

The lawsuit, filed in Will County Circuit Court, alleges that Gateway Cold Storage Inc. knowingly shipped foods contaminated with anhydrous ammonia to the Joliet Township school for its lunch program.

Gateway Cold Storage "owed a duty to the children and teachers to distribute a product that was fit for human consumption," the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs want the company to be held liable for the poisoning of nine students and two teachers. Punitive damages may be sought at a later date.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of teachers Courtney Corrigan and Adrian Dodson, and students Johnathan Bailey, Brian and Tanya Buell, Ariel Ervins, Courtney Miers, Weems McCullom III, Michelle Moore, Ashley Perkins and Shanell Reid. The students' mothers are also listed as plaintiffs.

Gateway Cold Storage operated a refrigerated storage facility in St. Louis in November 2001 that was used to store food distributed to Illinois schools for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's lunch program.

A pipe broke that month and ammonia sprayed over the chicken fingers. Some were destroyed, but others were distributed to dozens of Illinois districts. Illnesses were reported only at Laraway School.

A total of 39 students and teachers were treated for nausea, headaches and vomiting at area hospitals.

Anhydrous ammonia is a gas with extremely toxic vapors that can cause great harm to people, including death, according to the lawsuit.

"We are trying to understand what people knew and when they knew it," said co-counsel William Marler of Marler Clark, a Seattle law news nationally known for its representation in suits involving food-borne illnesses, which is working with Chicago-based law news James P. Crawley & Associates.

"We want to make sure the kids get compensated fairly, but there are also policy issues. Who knew the stuff was contaminated and why did they send it out," he said.

Ron Jenkins, corporate attorney for Gateway Cold Storage, said he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit but denied the company was responsible for shipping the contaminated food.

"Gateway Cold Storage did not own the food product," he said. "We had a contract (with Lanter Refrigeration Co.) to store the food product and we honored that contract. We had no part whatsoever in deciding to send the food to Laraway School."

The lawsuit names several entities as "respondents in discovery," a legal designation suggesting those parties know the identity of other possible defendants, Marler said.

The respondents in discovery include Tyson Foods Inc., Lanter Refrigeration Co., Laraway Unified School District, Laraway Elementary School, the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois State Board of Education, Will County Department of Health, the Missouri and St. Louis departments of health, the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"A preliminary investigation of the incident suggests that multiple commercial and governmental entities may have contributed to the cause of this disturbing, preventable event," James Crawley said. "The government has failed at all levels to protect the children at Laraway School."

Marler said his preliminary investigation found that Gateway Cold Storage did not inform the local health department about the leak until a week after it happened.

It is unclear if food was shipped during that week, if it was shipped to Chicago and who authorized shipments, Marler said.

The Will County state's attorney's office is conducting a grand jury investigation to determine if criminal charges are appropriate as well.

Laraway School District Supt. James Rabbitt said he has not been contacted about the victims' lawsuit or the grand jury investigation.

He has conducted an internal investigation and is preparing to deliver recommendations to the school board next week on how the district's cooks can screen food for contaminants. He is eager to hear more about the external investigations.

"We certainly want to find out who is responsible for getting our students and faculty ill," Rabbitt said. "We rely on the sources of our lunch program to provide us safe and quality food. We've lost that faith."

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