Talking with William Marler, Seattle attorney
For 13 years, Seattle attorney William Marler has made a name for himself as the E. coli lawyer. Food service companies, vendors and manufacturers fear him like bacteria fear penicillin. "I hope so," he said, "We're really good at what we do."
The six-lawyer practice of Marler and Clark LLP specializes in suing producers and manufacturers accused of selling tainted food products. Its clients have received combined settlements and verdicts of more than $250 million. That includes the famous 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli case in Washington state.
Today Marler is tracking the nationwide outbreak of E. coli illnesses tied to bagged spinach. The outbreak has been linked to 183 illnesses in 26 states, according to The Wall Street Journal, including at least one death. Marler is representing 81 of those, including, he says, two deaths that have yet to be announced.
The Bremerton native, who graduated from Washington State University and earned his law degree from Seattle University, talked with the Puget Sound Business Journal at his office.
On how he got started specializing in food-borne illness litigation: It started in 1993 when the Jack in the Box case hit here in Seattle. It was a war zone and I wound up representing a lot of sick kids in that case. After the Jack in the Box case happened I really thought I would just become a trial lawyer again doing what I do. Then the Odwalla case happened which also was sort of focused here. Once that case ended I made a business decision to sort of focus on this type of litigation. I hired Bruce Clark from Karr Tuttle Campbell and Denis Stearns and we started Marler Clark (in 1998). Since then, our focus has been exclusively food-borne illness litigation.
On the nation's preparedness to cope with a widespread threat to the food supply: I think we're actually in pretty good shape. The reason why is if you look at this (spinach) outbreak as an example, they were able to stop it before it got bigger. We've become much more sophisticated. It may be one of the few things that the federal government has actually done a really good job on. I think we are more prepared for a bioterrorism problem.
On the effectiveness of using blogs, Web sites and media interviews to market his firm: We know more about this stuff (food-borne illness) than anyone in the world, frankly, certainly any lawyers in the world. We took this data out there (on the firm's Web site) and originally it was for informational purposes. Now, when you type in "E. coli lawyer" or "salmonella lawyer" or whatever, or you type in "salmonella," it's likely that relatively quickly on Google you will find my site, or one of our sites. ... Our competition (in search-engine rankings) isn't other lawyers on the Web. Our competition is the Centers for Disease Control or Food and Drug Administration.
On the importance of scientific evidence in his firm's lawsuits: Scientific evidence is everything that drives what we do. Every time somebody goes to a doctor and they are diagnosed with E. coli 0157:H7 ... They actually draw out of the bacteria the DNA ... and they upload it to the CDD, which is then comparing these cases as they come in real time.
On his own food preparation preferences: I'm not a germophobe. ... I'm less careful about what I eat but I'm more careful about what my children eat. We don't eat hamburger, we don't eat bagged spinach and lettuce. We don't eat sprouts and we don't eat raw food. We are probably a little more paranoid than the average American. But then you know, if I got sick or my kids got sick, some company is probably not going to be very sympathetic to my position.