“From what I understand, my heart stopped three times. My kidneys shut down and I was on dialysis,” Mrs. Johnson said. “I'm still not back to where I was before I got sick.” Mrs. Johnson's lawsuit against the Louisville-based chain was filed in U.S. District Court and has been assigned to Judge Sandra Beckwith. Mrs. Johnson is represented by the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, which has made a specialty out of food-borne illness litigation.
The firm has won settlements for several victims of the 1993 E. coli outbreak involving the Jack-in-the-Box chain and for five families affected by the 1996 E. coli outbreak linked to Odwalla brand apple juice.
What makes Mrs. Johnson's case especially important is that KFC coleslaw had been implicated in an E. coli outbreak in May 1998 in Indianapolis, said William Marler, Mrs. Johnson's attorney.
“It's extremely unusual to see the same sort of thing happen twice. The fact that KFC didn't implement practices to make sure the contamination was stopped by the time it hit (Greater Cincinnati) in 1999 is beyond the pale,” Mr. Marler said.
KFC officials said Thursday they were shocked by the lawsuit.
“Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our customers. KFC acted swiftly to ensure that we had the safest possible coleslaw, switching immediately to pre-chopped, pre-washed cabbage,” said KFC spokesman Michael Tierney. “We were paying Ms. Johnson's medical expenses while talking with her about an appropriate settlement given her condition, so the lawsuit came as a complete surprise to us.”
Last summer, the Clermont County health department and other public health officials scrambled to trace the cause of 30 reported cases of E. coli illness that occurred in June and July. Nineteen of the cases had no obvious connections. Lab testing found eight different E. coli DNA patterns among those victims.
But 11 cases stood out. All 11 ate coleslaw purchased between July 5 and July 27 from four Tristate KFC restaurants, health officials said. In response, the restaurant chain threw out coleslaw at those restaurants and started retraining employees, and all KFC restaurants in the Ohio Valley started buying pre-chopped, pre-washed ingredients for their cole slaw.
No deaths were linked to last summer's E. coli outbreak, but many of the victims were severely ill and several required hospital care, health officials said at the time.
Mrs. Johnson, who worked at the time at an Ameristop food store, said she stopped two or three times a week at a KFC at 7716 Beechmont Ave., near Beechmont Mall, for a four-piece wing dinner and a double order of coleslaw.
She got sick on July 18 or 19, she said. It started with stomach cramps and evolved into diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. By July 25, she was so ill a relative took her to Mercy Hospital Anderson. Ultimately, she spent a month in the hospital, mostly in intensive care, she said. She said she still isn't well enough to work.