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Courting publicity, attorney makes safe food his business

by Maggie Leung, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

September 7 1999

Some call Seattle attorney Bill Marler a knight in shining armor, some call him an ambulance chaser. Either way, people call Marler—a personal-injury lawyer who has built a thriving practice from undercooked hamburgers.

Marler, who made his mark by suing Jack in the Box for serving people beef tainted with a deadly strain of the common E. coli bacteria in 1993, has carved a niche for himself and his law firm, Marler Clark. Most of its business comes from food-poisoning cases.

And people call from across the country, looking for the firm’s unique expertise. They call after consuming what they suspect was contaminated juice in Illinois, tainted lettuce in Nebraska or bad hamburger in New Jersey.

They’re looking for results like the $15.6 million settlement Marler negotiated in 1995 for then-9-year-old Brianne Kiner, who suffered the most damaging health effects of the Jack in the Box victims. Marler wears several hats:

He’s a lawyer whose cases have changed food-handling nationwide.

He’s an adviser to Gov. Gary Locke who helped raise millions in campaign funds and then helped handle allegations of illegal contributions.

He’s a Democratic politician-wannabe who has considered spending millions of his own money to unseat Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

He runs a consulting service that lectures company officials on the dangers of improper food handling, including videos of children near death from the effects of eating tainted food. For this, he charges only travel and expenses.

Some critics deride him as a publicity hound.
“It appears the most important thing to him is to be talked about,” says Republican political consultant Brett Bader, who is familiar with Marler’s work and political interests.

While many attorneys handle food-poisoning cases, few relentlessly court the news media like Marler. When outbreaks occur, he fires off press releases and e-mail, offering expertise and interviews.

“I really believe strongly that we should stop people from poisoning kids,” he says. “I try to do what I can. If people want to criticize me for that, I’m willing to take it. ... If you think I pitch newspaper people, I’m merciless when I pitch politicians (about food safety).”

When Marler talks about food safety, he’s in his element. But he calls partner Bruce Clark the practice’s expert in the rare strain of the bacteria that can be deadly, E. coli O157:H7.

Clark, who once represented Jack in the Box’s parent company, used to sit across the negotiating table from Marler.

Now he sits in a glass office next to Marler’s in a 43rd-floor suite in downtown Seattle’s Columbia Seafirst Tower. Marler’s office boasts a 280-degree view, spanning from the Cascades to Puget Sound, Mount Rainier and beyond.

The law practice, which includes partners Denis Stearns and Andrew Weisbecker, earns him a “comfortable” living, Marler says.

That comfortable living includes a house on Bainbridge Island’s waterfront and enough money that Marler, 42, recently considered spending $2 million to run against Gorton.

He’s a guy from Bremerton who grew up middle class, went to public schools and graduated from Washington State University.

After the University of Washington rejected him, Marler whiled away the summer after high school. Then, three weeks before fall semester started, Marler drove to WSU in Pullman and talked his way into conditional acceptance even though he hadn’t applied to the school.

As a sophomore political science major in 1978, he won a seat on Pullman’s City Council on a lark.

Six years and a Seattle University law degree later, he was an associate at the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback when Brianne Kiner’s mom hired him to sue Jack in the Box. When Marler later left the firm because it refused to guarantee him partnership, most of Marler’s clients left with him.

“(Suzanne Kiner) was devoted to him. The skill and care and attention that he devoted to her, he’s shown to other clients,” says Kirk Portmann, a partner at Keller Rohrback.

Keller Rohrback and Marler ultimately split a share of the $15.6 million settlement.

Bright, caring, engaging, enthusiastic and warm—that’s how many clients and lawyers, including Portmann, describe Marler. Others spoke more warily of Marler.

“If you want to ask me about his good points, I’d be happy to talk about them. If you want to ask me about his bad points, I don’t know of any that I’d care to discuss,” said attorney George Kargianis, a former partner. “Bill has a number of excellent characteristics.”

Marler says he realized early in his law career that he was a plaintiff’s attorney.

“I identify with people who’ve been victimized. ... It was clear relatively early on that I wasn’t going to feel comfortable representing companies or people that hurt people.”

Marler admits he sometimes loses his professional detachment.

“For the most part, I represent kids who’ve been sickened by some company that’s trying to make a buck,” he said. “To think that this could happen to my kid—that drives me nuts.”

After interviewing several attorneys, Terry Beverly of Issaquah hired Marler to represent his desperately sick toddler against juice maker Odwalla Inc. in 1996. The other attorneys were competent and businesslike, but Marler blew away his image of lawyers, Beverly said.

“Everything is genuine with him. ... He’s seriously dedicated to helping children and it shows. I felt good about Bill.”

It’s Marler’s ability to relate to clients that makes him a success, Portmann said.

“Bill doesn’t talk like a lawyer. He doesn’t talk down to clients,” says Portmann, who calls Marler a rainmaker—someone who brings in clients.

Rainmakers are vital in personal-injury practices, which usually make money only when clients win or settle. Marler typically receives one-quarter to one-third of what clients receive. He earned more than $10 million representing Jack in the Box customers.

After the outbreak caused by the tainted meat, the fast-food chain retrained workers and adopted new cooking procedures.

In the Odwalla case, Marler ultimately negotiated a settlement, with Odwalla paying a reported $15�million total to five injured children. Among those sharing the award was Michael Beverly, who at 5 appears healthy but was left vulnerable to kidney failure and diabetes.

Odwalla also began pasteurizing its apple juice, which kills the E. coli bacteria.

When Marler’s not suing firms over food poisoning, he lectures them on it. He recently started OutBreak Inc., a consulting firm that tells companies how not to poison customers and what will happen if they do. For instance, Marler explains safe food handling and shows executives video footage of E. coli-sickened children near death.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d see an Odwalla case (after the Jack in the Box outbreak),” Marler says. “It’s frustrating. I can’t believe this stuff happens again and again and again.”

OutBreak’s clients include the Seattle Mariners, who hired Marler as an adviser after Safeco Field’s recent troubles with food handling. Its food concessionaire initially netted dozens of health violations but has cleaned up its act, health officials say. Marler entered the picture at Safeco Field, as he often does, by telephoning to offer his services.

Several years ago, he telephoned then-King County Executive Gary Locke. They didn’t know each other, but Marler was considering running against then-U.S. Rep. Rick White and wanted to chat.

He also discussed his political ambitions with then-Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and then-Gov. Mike Lowry. Marler eventually decided not to run, but he and Locke hit it off.

Months later, Marler became Locke’s fund-raising chief for his 1996 gubernatorial campaign. Marler had never raised money before, but he had just come off his Jack in the Box success and offered to work full-time on Locke’s campaign.

By campaign’s end, Marler and a team of professional fund-raisers had pulled in a very respectable $2.3 million. But Republicans also accused Locke’s fund-raisers of accepting illegal contributions.

Allegations of illegal donations by Asians during the 1996 presidential election spread to Locke’s campaign. His team later returned several thousand dollars in questionable contributions. A congressional committee cleared Locke’s team of knowingly accepting illegal donations, but the state Public Disclosure Commission fined his campaign $2,500 for fund-raising violations caused by negligence.

The violations were his responsibility, Marler says. “I should have known campaign-financing laws better,” he says.

Having weathered the election, Marler remains part of Locke’s “Kitchen Cabinet” of advisers. And the governor has appointed Marler to WSU’s Board of Regents, which sets university policy.

Marler leads a busy life, juggling his practice, consulting, fund raising, community work and family. He and wife Julie have three daughters—7, 4 and 4 months old. They’re partly why he didn’t run against Slade Gorton, Marler says.

“It came down to balancing ... the chances of winning, the time of winning, the cost of winning. And you balance it with the time I spend with my family,” he says. Talking about reading to his daughters, taking them shopping for school clothes and just hanging out together, he says, “I wouldn’t be able to experience that.”

But Marler is making time to work on Locke’s 2000 gubernatorial campaign, continuing as fund-raising chief. Fund raising on that scale can help pave the way to elected office, Bader says.

Democratic political consultant Blair Butterworth says Marler would be a dream candidate—bright, and rich enough to help fund his own campaign. And national and state Democratic leaders have urged Marler to run, Butterworth says.

Marler likens politics to law—helping people, except on a larger scale. “(As a lawmaker), you can attempt in a very direct way to really change larger things,” he says.

Says Republican Bader: “Clearly, this is a guy who’s made a few dollars chasing ambulances, and he wants to become somebody in politics.”

Bader criticizes Marler for having considered congressional run despite his lack of political experience.

“That’s a good criticism, I guess,” Marler says. “But I deal with (House members and senators) and I look at their skills and abilities and I look at my skills and abilities and I’m not intimidated. . . . I also think a lot of people out there measure up (to politicians that way).”

Butterworth says it’s that enthusiasm that cemented the friendship between Locke and Marler.

“One of the reasons he and Gary Locke get along is there’s sort of a Boy Scout quality in both of them—a kind of almost innocence and enthusiasm about things. ... “(Marler) is a knight in shining armor. He likes good guys and bad guys. ... I think he would like to see himself as doing good things.”

The Marler Clark Network