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Creek flooding blamed for ’03 E. coli cases

The Salinas Californian today reports more on the Sodexho E. coli outbreak in Salinas Valley and where things are going.
Just before Christmas, Marler Clark settled 29 out of 40 claims of customers sickened at Pat & Oscar’s. We also represent the family of Alice McWalter and Sarah Ish, another sickened Sequoias resident, in lawsuits against Sodexho USA.
From the article:

In an action that is usually a prelude to a lawsuit, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors has rejected two claims that allege the Monterey County Water Resources Agency failed to maintain a creek, resulting in the contamination of a field of produce which was later connected to two food-borne illness outbreaks.
Last Tuesday, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors rejected two claims filed by the companies in November, the county counsel’s office said.
Filing such claims and having them rejected are a necessary prelude to filing full-blown lawsuits.
Legal consequences of two food-borne illness outbreaks that sickened at least 63 people and killed one in 2003 have returned to the Salinas Valley, where state investigators say lettuce and spinach — contaminated at an unknown point before they were eaten — were grown.
Beginning with those infected with E. coli 0157:H7 by the tainted produce, lawsuits have blossomed throughout the food-growing and distribution chain. Now River Ranch Fresh Foods and Diamond Produce, the two companies said to have grown the contaminated lettuce and spinach, have taken preliminary steps toward suing Monterey County.
Lawyers for the two Salinas-area companies say the Monterey County Water Resources Agency failed to maintain Santa Rita Creek, resulting in flooding in 2003 that spread waste across a field where produce was grown.

Restaurant sues growers
Water resources chief Curtis Weeks said Friday his agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over Santa Rita Creek, but still does its best to communicate with growers who use the land adjacent to the water way.
“We do not have the resources to manage every creek within Monterey County,” Weeks said. “I wish we were a resource to do that. We do our level best to communicate with growers.”
After a flood in 2003, Weeks said, his agency even offered to buy an entire field of produce.
“It’s a complicated set of different issues,” he said, explaining that there isn’t one agency or group that is able to “police and notify all those involved.”
From his agency’s standpoint, he said, it’s not clear that there is a connection between flooding at the creek and the contamination of the lettuce and spinach.
River Ranch and Diamond Produce have been sued by Pat & Oscar’s, a Southern California restaurant chain where at least 49 customers were sickened in early October 2003 after eating lettuce from pre-washed mixes contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, according to state investigators and attorneys.
That same month, 16 residents at The Sequoias retirement community in San Mateo County were sickened and one died after eating pre-washed spinach prepared by Sodexho USA, a food service company that provides meals to a wide variety of institutions daily, according to investigators and attorneys. Sodexho USA has also filed a lawsuit against River Ranch, attorneys said.
Distributors settle suits
E. coli 0157:H7 is the most dangerous form of the bacteria and can lead to kidney failure in the worst cases. Lesser symptoms include severe cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea.
While most of the victims of both outbreaks suffered a range of symptoms from eating the contaminated produce and are now recovering, 85-year-old Alice McWalter, a resident at The Sequoias, died at Stanford Medical Center after 14 days of illness that ended in kidney failure and seizures, attorneys said.
Pat & Oscar’s has settled lawsuits with two distribution companies — Gold Coast Produce and Family Tree Produce — that were the middle men between River Ranch and Diamond Produce and the restaurant chain, Frank Gordon, a San Diego attorney who represents Pat & Oscar’s, said Friday.
Neither River Ranch nor Diamond Produce have reached a settlement with Pat & Oscar’s, Gordon said.
“The product that was given to the people who put it in the bags was contaminated at that time,” he said. “So it’s a violation of their warranties and guarantees.”
Forty of the customers sickened at Pat & Oscar’s sued the restaurant chain and settled their claims just before Christmas, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represented 29 of them.
Marler also represents the family of McWalter and Sarah Ish, another sickened Sequoias resident, in lawsuits against Sodexho USA, he said.