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When E. coli strikes, who pays?

  • Article by: Matt McKinney
  • Star Tribune
  • November 10, 2007 - 4:25 PM

If a person gets sick eating a company's hamburger, should the company pay the medical bills? And how quickly?

William Marler, a lawyer who has made a career representing E. coli victims, says businesses should be proactive. His latest client is a 4-year-old boy who was sickened last month after eating a hamburger made with meat that came from a Cargill processing plant. The boy, John McDonald, lost part of his intestine, suffered kidney failure and was hospitalized for nearly a month. His year-old sister was also hospitalized for a week with the same strain of E. coli.

Marler says Cargill has refused to pay the McDonalds' medical bills and filed a lawsuit this week seeking unspecified damages.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Smith, 20, from Cold Spring, Minn., who was sickened in the same outbreak, remains in a drug-induced coma at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors are trying to save her life. Her family believes that she was sickened after eating ground beef the weekend of Sept. 22.

It was the second ground beef recall this year for Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., a subsidiary of the Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant, which posted net income of $917 million in its most recent quarter.

A spokeswoman for Cargill said the company does not comment concerning pending litigation.

And while there's no law that specifically directs a food company to pay medical bills in cases such as these, it's clear from past court decisions that E. coli cases can quickly spiral out of control for meatpackers, one observer said.

"They can face very big liability," said Alfred Marcus, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. "The question becomes -- as cruel as this might sound -- what's an intestine worth?"

Marler said that past outbreaks linked to the Odwalla Juice Co. and to the Jack-in-the-Box hamburger chain saw both companies make early payments for victims' medical bills.

A company might try arguing that the consumer should have cooked the hamburger longer, but it's not usually a wise argument, another observer said.

"That gets to be a delicate argument, because in one sense, you are trying to blame the victims," said Ralph Hall, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329

Matt McKinney • mckinney@startribune.com

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