CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C. -- A nationally known Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in E. coli cases is representing a Maiden woman and her 18-month-old son who became ill in the E. coli outbreak tied to the Cleveland County Fair.
On Monday, Bill Marler filed a civil complaint in Cleveland County against the fair and petting zoo owner on behalf of plaintiffs Amie Westfall and her son, Dominic. Also representing the Westfalls is Asheville lawyer Mark Kurdys.
Last week, the families of two children who became ill in the outbreak sued the fair. One is from Gastonia and the other is from Gaffney, S.C.
The suit filed by Marler states that Dominic Westfall attended the fair with his mother and visited the Circle G Ranch petting zoo.
N.C. health officials have said the petting zoo at the fair was the focal point of the E. coli outbreak, and that rainy weather helped spread the bacteria to areas away from the animals.
In all, 106 people became sick, including a 2-year-old from Gastonia who died.
On Sept. 29, Dominic Westfall fell ill with gastrointestinal symptoms and the next day began suffering from fever and bloody diarrhea, the suit states. In the hospital, he tested positive for E. coli and also developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause kidney failure.
According to the lawsuit, the boy “appears to still be suffering from the after effects of his illness.”
The suit claims the fair and petting zoo owners knew, or should have known, the risk of E. coli infection created by exposure to animals. The suit also alleges, among other things, that the fair and petting zoo failed to take measures to protect the public from exposure and contamination by E. coli and also failed to give adequate warning about the dangers.
The family is seeking damages in excess of $10,000.
A food safety attorney, Marler has filed lawsuits against such companies as Chili’s, Chi-Chi’s, Dole, KFC, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell. According to his website, he’s secured more than $600 million for victims of E. coli, salmonella and other foodborne illnesses.
Since 1993, Marler has been handling E. coli cases and has been involved in several petting zoo/county fair outbreaks.
In a phone interview, Marler said that, based on his experience, he’d be surprised if the Cleveland County Fair or Circle G Ranch had more than a million dollars each in liability insurance.
“With 106 sickened, this is not even remotely enough to fairly compensate people for past and future medical bills,” he said. “I’m just in the process of finishing up an E. coli outbreak in Oklahoma where the amount of past medical bills of the victims exceeded the insurance coverage.”
In that case, “we were able to get all the lawyers and victims to agree to have the court appoint someone to review each case and to divide up the limited money as fairly as possible,” Marler said. “We waived all fees and costs and have been successful in getting health insurers to do the same.”
If necessary, he hopes a similar resolution can be reached in the Cleveland County case.
A spokesman for the Circle G Ranch from Strawberry Plaines, Tenn., had no comment on the lawsuit Monday.
O. Max Gardner III, attorney for the Cleveland County Fair Inc., said the nonprofit hadn’t been served with the complaint, but that he’d been notified by Marler of an intent to file the lawsuit.
Gardner said he couldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit and that comment on the fair’s liability insurance “wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Earlier this month in Cleveland County, the state said it would set up a committee to look for new ways to prevent E. coli outbreaks. The committee would include both local and state health officials.
Marler noted a task force came up with recommendations for preventative measures following the 2011 E. coli outbreak at the N.C. State Fair in Raleigh. He said Cleveland County Fair officials “had plenty of time to take note and implement similar interventions.”
Recommendations included washing hands after contact with animals and transition areas between animal areas and non-animal areas.
Cleveland County Fair Director Calvin Hastings has previously said that organizers tried to prevent any problems with E. coli before the fair started. Steps included having more hand-washing stations than state law requires, he said, and posting signs to remind people to wash their hands.
But Marler said the guidelines aren’t working well and “blaming the victims for not washing their hands is wearing thin.”
He suggested animals should be vaccinated to reduce how much pathogenic E. coli they carry and tested before they arrive at the fair.
Banning petting zoos is also an option, he said.