Two families hurt by E. coli hire lawyers


A Seattle law firm specializing in food liability lawsuits will represent two families victimized by the recent E. coli outbreak with an eye toward suing the farm that provided the raw milk that sickened their children.

The law firm Marler Clark won recognition for winning more than $20 million in settlements following the Jack-in-the-Box E. coli outbreak in 1993 and a $12 million settlement in 1998 in the Odwalla apple juice outbreak.

Eighteen people, 15 of them children ages 1 to 13, have been sickened in the outbreak, and all 18 consumed raw milk from Dee Creek Farm near Woodland. Two children remain hospitalized but their conditions are improving.

Clark County and state health officials have been testing and cross-testing milk samples and E. coli victims to determine the scientific link between the milk and the bacteria.

Tests so far confirm seven have the 0157:H7 E. coli strain, which is safe for cows but dangerous in people. The four completed tests all show an identical DNA fingerprint, indicating a common source of infection, said Marni Storey, Clark County public health manager.

"This adds more evidence," she said.

On Tuesday, Clark County officials also said samples of raw milk taken home by Dee Creek Farm consumers tested positive for E. coli. The samples will be sent to the Washington State Public Health Laboratory to determine whether it's 0157:H7, the strain that sickened the raw milk drinkers.

"We're moving forward with the full battery of tests in the samples," said Justin Kelly, spokesman for the Washington Department of Agriculture.

The law firm Marler Clark specializes in serious personal injury and wrongful death suits, including food-borne illnesses, medical malpractice, motor vehicle accidents and nursing home negligence.

Bill Marler, the firm's managing partner, has represented thousands of clients of food-borne illnesses. He was the attorney for Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million E. coli settlement with Jack-in-the-Box, a state record for an individual personal injury case. He resolved several other Jack-in-the-Box cases for more than $2.5 million each.

Drew Falkenstein, an associate with Marler Clark, said two families, each with a child suffering from exposure to E. coli, have retained the firm to represent them in any possible claims that may arise from the outbreak. He said the firm is still investigating the case, but litigation is possible.

"I suspect we'll file a lawsuit against the farm," he said. "I think that's where this is headed."

The law firm is also looking into suing the state of Washington for not doing more to protect consumers of the farm's raw milk. The farm was operating without a license, as required under state law. In August, the state ordered Dee Creek Farm's owners, Anita and Michael Puckett, to stop distributing the raw milk. The Pucketts refused but said they were preparing to apply for a license.

"Is there any blame the state must bear in this? It's a possibility,"

Falkenstein said, "and we'll delve into all areas of inquiry before we decide on any course of action."

Falkenstein, a Longview native, said E. coli poisoning can cause severe long-term health problems leading to kidney dialysis and kidney transplants later in life. He said legal action could help ensure the medical well-being over the lifetimes of the victims.

Don Hamilton can be reached at 360-759-8010 or don.hamilton@columbian.com.

Update

Previously: Eighteen people have been infected with the bacteria E. coli, an outbreak linked by authorities to raw milk from a Woodland dairy.

What's new: Two families with children injured in the outbreak retained a Seattle law firm specializing in personal injury lawsuits.

What's next: Health officials will continue testing to see if there's a conclusive link between the dairy's raw milk and the E. coli.