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E. coli Lawsuit filed against China Buffet

November 13 2001

ALEXANDRIA, MN - Marler Clark, a Seattle law firm nationally known for representing victims of food-borne illness, filed suit against China Buffet on behalf of Iva Hayes, a 69-year old resident of Alexandria, Minnesota in Douglas County. “This is the first lawsuit filed from this relatively small outbreak. However, Mrs. Hayes is one of the sickest individuals who I have ever seen survive this illness. She incurred over $400,000 in medical expenses,” said her lawyer William Marler.

Mrs. Hayes’s Illness

On August 22, 2001, Mrs. Hayes had lunch at the China Buffet. She ate from the restaurant’s self-serve buffet, including her favorite dish: broccoli beef. Ms. Mayes first became ill on August 26, 2001. She started to experience severe abdominal cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration. Soon, she developed persistent bloody diarrhea, nausea, and weakness.

Ms. Hayes was taken to the Douglas County Hospital Emergency Room on August 28, 2001, and was eventually admitted to the hospital. Her chief complaints continued to be bloody stools, nausea, vomiting, and overall weakness. She was treated with medications and IV fluids, and stool samples were taken for testing. On August 30, 2001, her samples tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. On September 2, 2001, Ms. Hayes’ condition worsened, with significant alarming changes in her creatinine and hemoglobin levels. Her treating doctor became concerned about the possibility of hemolytic uremic syndrome (“HUS”) as a complication of the E. coli infection, and that evening he transferred Ms. Hayes to St. Cloud Hospital for easier access to additional care facilities. Doctors at St. Cloud Hospital tested Ms. Hayes’ kidney on September 3, 2001, and found them to be failing.

Ultimately, they diagnosed Ms. Hayes with thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura (“TTP”), a variation of HUS. TTP/HUS is characterized by micro angiopathy, hemolytic uremia, renal failure, and neurological involvement. Given the severity of the diagnosis, Ms. Hayes was transferred again, this time to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, on September 3, 2001. Ms. Hayes was immediately moved into the Intensive Care Unit at the Hennepin County Medical Center, and was started on daily blood plasma exchanges. A number of specialists in kidney, blood, and neurologic conditions were called in to consult on her status.

Ms. Hayes was at the Hennepin County Medical Center for over a month. During that time, she suffered from numerous complications arising out of her E. coli illness and subsequent TTP/HUS condition. She suffered three separate seizures, and remembers little of the month of the September. She contracted sepsis, with resulting altered mental status and spiking fever. She suffered from a pulmonary edema and respiratory distress. Ms. Hayes was eventually discharged from Hennepin County Medical Center to the Knapp Rehabilitation facility on October 4, 2001. She worked there with therapy to regain strength and independence. She was finally discharged from Knapp Rehabilitation and returned home on October 19, 2001, almost two months after the onset of her illness.

Ms. Hayes continues to pursue weekly physical therapy, to restore her muscle tone and balance. She can no longer drive, given her past three seizures, for which she continues to take medication. She continues to be unusually tired and weak, and has significant concerns about her impaired immunity system.

Health Department Investigation

According to the Douglas/Pope County Health Department, between August 24, 2001, and August 27, 2001, five different persons in Douglas County, Stearns County, and Pope County, Minnesota, became ill with E. coli O157:H7. All five were eventually hospitalized Between August 30, 2001 and September 4, 2001; these five cases were reported to the Minnesota Department of Health. Stool samples were submitted to the Department of Health Laboratory for testing.

On September 5, 2001, the Department of Health Epidemiology Staff notified the Department of Health Laboratory that there were five matching cases of E. coli O157:H7 from Douglas, Stearns, and Pope Counties. The Department of Health then completed its interview of all five stricken victims of the outbreak. All five outbreak cases were associated with food consumed at the China Buffet restaurant in Alexandria, Minnesota. All five infected individuals had eaten at the China Buffet in late August 2001. All five infected individuals were unrelated to each other, and none of the five shared any other common exposure.

On September 6, 2001, the State Department of Health notified the Douglas County Public Health Department regarding the outbreak, and an initial investigation and inspection of the restaurant was conducted. The restaurant then voluntarily closed, at the request of the Douglas County Public Health Department, and a full inspection was completed. A substantial number of violations were identified, including evidence of poor personal hygiene; cross-contamination between vegetables and raw meats; improper food storage; and the failure to sanitize food contact surfaces.

A second full inspection of the China Buffet restaurant was conducted by the State Department of health on September 10, 2001. Again, numerous violations were identified, including evidence of poor personal hygiene; cross-contamination between vegetables and raw meats; improper food storage; and the failure to sanitize food contact surfaces. A follow-up investigation was conducted on September 11, 2001. On September 13, 2001, another full inspection of the China Buffet was conducted. Again, a number of violations were identified, including evidence of potential cross-contamination and the failure to sanitize food contact surfaces. Due to the continuing violations at the establishment, it was determined by Douglas County to close the restaurant, and to keep it closed until September 17, 2001. The restaurant in fact was closed, and remained closed, until September 17, 2001.

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Background: Marler Clark has extensive experience representing victims of all foodborne illnesses. William Marler represented Brianne Kiner in her $15.6 million settlement with Jack in the Box in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved the Odwalla Juice E. coli outbreak for the five families whose children developed HUS and were severely injured after consuming contaminated apple juice for $12 million.

Marler Clark also represented the HUS victims in the recently settled Georgia Water Park Litigation. Since 1993 Marler Clark has successfully resolved well over a thousand food-borne illness matters. Total recoveries exceed $50 million. Marler Clark is currently lead counsel in actions resulting from E. coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Listeria or Hepatitis outbreaks in Washington, California, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, Minnesota, Illinois, Georgia, New Jersey and Wisconsin.

Marler Clark has also litigated on behalf of children against KFC, Bauer Meats, McDonalds, Hardees, Wendy’s, Subway, Sizzler, and Carl’s Jr. Marler Clark recently secured a verdict of $4.75 million against a School District in Eastern Washington.

More about the China Buffet E. coli outbreak can be found in the Case News area of this site.

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