Family of E. coli victim sues Cargill for $100 million

  • Article by: MATT MCKINNEY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 4, 2009 - 8:19 PM

She was a dance instructor who lost use of her legs, bladder and bowel after eating tainted hamburger produced by Cargill.

Stephanie Smith lays in her bed as her personal care assistant and best friend Emily Brutger helps move her legs at her home in Cold Spring, Minn., on Tuesday, August 11, 2009. Smith, 22, was paralyzed after being stricken by E. coli in 2007. Officials traced the E. coli to hamburger; her family had eaten American Chef�s Selection Angus Beef Patties at a Sunday dinner. Meat companies and grocers have been barred from selling ground beef tainted by the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7 since 1994, after an outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants left four children dead. Yet tens of thousands of people are still sickened annually by this pathogen, federal health officials estimate, with hamburger being the biggest culprit.

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Stephanie Smith lifts one leg and then the other as she struggles to get out of bed. She plops herself into a wheelchair before delivering a verdict on Cargill, the company that made the hamburger that made her so sick she can't walk.

"I hate them," she says in a video shot after her recovery.

Smith, a onetime dance instructor from Cold Spring, Minn., filed a $100 million lawsuit against Cargill Inc. Friday that alleges the company was responsible for a dangerous strain of bacteria found in hamburgers her family cooked at a fall get-together two years ago.

Thanks to investigations by the Minnesota Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there's no doubt her injuries came from those hamburgers: They were contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a bacterium blamed for a spate of high-profile food recalls in recent years, from spinach to peanut butter to prepackaged cookie dough.

Her case was highlighted in an investigation by the New York Times earlier this year in which it traced the Cargill hamburgers to a company plant in Butler, Wis., where employees ground meat from four plants in two countries to create the product later sold as "Sam's Club American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties."

A Cargill spokesman said Friday that the suppliers themselves tested their products and gave Cargill certificates that the results were negative.

"Cargill deeply regrets Ms. Smith's continuing suffering due to her illness," Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said in a statement e-mailed to the Star Tribune. "Each time Ms. Smith's family has asked for financial assistance to cover out-of-pocket and rehabilitation costs, Cargill has advanced funds to help her and her family. We will continue to provide assistance to maximize her recovery and will continue to work with her counsel to reach a fair resolution."

Cargill and its insurance agent, AIG, met with Smith's attorneys earlier this week to discuss a settlement, but those talks collapsed, said Bill Marler, Smith's attorney.

"What it comes down to is Cargill really believes it's not their fault," said Marler. "They believe that it's one of their suppliers' faults, but there's no evidence to suggest which one of their suppliers is at fault."

The company recalled 845,000 pounds of meat on Oct. 6, 2007, shortly after investigators with the Minnesota Department of Health zeroed in on the hamburgers as the source of an E. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds of people.

The company has paid some of Smith's nearly $2 million in medical bills so far, but not all of them, according to William Sieben, Smith's court-appointed guardian. "Stephanie appreciates what they're doing," he said.

The suit seeks compensatory damages of $100 million, plus payment of past and future hospital bills, bringing the total to $133 million. No punitive damages were sought, but that could come later, said Marler. The suit charges Cargill's meat subsidiary, Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., with one count of strict liability, one count of negligence and one count of negligence per se.

The suit also chronicles Smith's odyssey from healthy dance instructor to comatose hospital patient, relating how her first signs of illness -- fever, chills and diarrhea -- came five days after she ate a hamburger purchased at Sam's Club. A day later she was admitted to St. Cloud Hospital.

There she came down with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a sometimes-deadly disease that strikes some of the worst cases of infection by E. coli O157:H7. Her kidneys failed. Seizures came so regularly that doctors were forced to put her into a drug-induced coma to limit damage to her brain. She was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

When she emerged from the coma two months later, Smith had lost the use of her legs, her bowel and bladder.

She remained hospitalized for six more months, first at the Mayo Clinic, then back to St. Cloud, and finally to a brain injury unit at another hospital. Today, she lives at home with her mother in Cold Spring and continues to undergo physical therapy, hoping to relearn to walk.

Marler, a Seattle-based attorney who rose to national prominence defending victims of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that killed four children, posted the New York Times video of Smith on his personal blog.

"She is far and away the most severely injured person who's ever survived this that I've ever seen," he said.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

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