Washington Supreme Court Decision Upholds $4.6 Million Jury Award for School E. coli Outbreak


SEATTLE, WA -- The Washington Supreme Court today declined to review last year’s Court of Appeals decision upholding a $4.6 million award to 11 children injured in a 1998 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that was linked to undercooked taco meat served as part of a school lunch at Finley Elementary School. The School District had sought the Supreme Court’s review arguing that school districts should not be held legally responsible if ill-prepared food sickens or kills a student. The Supreme Court refused to consider the argument.

“Washington State has a long history of holding school accountable when the children in their care are injured or killed,” said Denis Stearns, attorney and one of the founding partners at Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm nationally recognized for its successful representation of outbreak victim. “We believe that the Supreme Court’s decision today reaffirms the principle that, when it comes to preparing food for their students, a school’s foodservice operation should be held to the same high standard as any other restaurant licensed to operate in this State.”

In its investigation of the outbreak, the Washington State Department of Health found that the Finley School under-cooked the taco meat. The Department further found the “differences in the preparation, handling, and transport of meat may have allowed for uneven cooking, uneven cooling, and uneven re-heating at the elementary school. This outbreak and the resulting investigation highlight the importance of regular inspections of institutional kitchens and the need for training of food service workers.”

The attorneys at Marler Clark have long been advocates of increased food-safety standards for school lunches, including mandatory training of school food-workers, increased inspections, and the use of pre-cooked, pasteurized, and irradiated foods. Denis Stearns, and Marler Clark managing partner, William Marler, write and lecture widely on this and related food-safety topics.

“School-aged children are more vulnerable than most when it comes to exposure to contaminated food,” Stearns added. “Those who argue for lower-standards plainly do not understand what the problem is, or what is truly at stake. If anything, schools should be held to the highest standards. These are our children we are talking about.”

In declining to accept review of the Court of Appeals decision, the Supreme Court foreclosed any further legal options for the school district and its insurers. “While this day has been long in coming,” Stearns said. “It is a day that our clients are grateful for. They will get the compensation that the jury found them so deserving of, and can now get on with their lives.”

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Marler Clark has extensive experience representing vic-tims of foodborne illnesses. William Marler represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 mil-lion settlement with Jack in the Box in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved the Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for five families whose children developed HUS and were severely injured after consuming contaminated apple juice for $12 million. Total recoveries ex-ceed $75 million.

More about the Finley Elementary School E. coli outbreak can be found in the Case News area of this site.