Cargill Inc. publicly acknowledged responsibility Wednesday for life-shattering injuries suffered by a young Minnesota dance instructor after she ate a contaminated hamburger, a case that has drawn national attention and helped shape the U.S. food safety debate.

The Minnetonka-based agribusiness giant and the victim of the E. coli-tainted burger, Stephanie Smith, jointly announced that they have settled a suit filed by Smith in December. Terms weren't disclosed, but Cargill, one of the nation's largest beef producers, agreed to cover Smith's care for the rest of her life.

Smith, 22, had asked for $100 million in compensatory damages, plus payment of past and future hospital bills. "Cargill deeply regrets Ms. Smith's injuries and is also hopeful for her continued rehabilitation," the company said in a news release.

The Cold Spring woman lost use of her legs, bowel and bladder after eating the burger during a family get-together in the fall of 2007. The hamburger was contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7, a bacterium blamed for a spate of prominent food recalls in recent years, from spinach to peanut butter to packaged cookie dough.

In October 2007, not long after Smith and hundreds of others got sick, Cargill recalled 845,000 pounds of ground beef patties made at its plant in Butler, Wis. Smith was sickened by meat made at that plant and sold under the label of Sam's Club American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties.

E. coli's effects can range from two days of diarrhea, to a short hospital stay, to death, said William Marler, an attorney who represented Smith and has handled about 2,000 E. coli cases over 17 years. "Stephanie, by far, is the most injured E. coli victim I've ever represented who lived," Marler said.

Smith's illness started with fever, chills and diarrhea, but she then came down with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a byproduct of the worst infections of E. coli 0157:H7. Her kidneys failed and she had so many seizures that her doctors put her in a coma to limit brain damage. She remained in the coma for two months and stayed in the hospital for six months after that.

Smith has been in Illinois undergoing physical rehabilitation for much of this year; she returned to Cold Spring about two weeks ago to live with her mother.

"Stephanie has made amazing progress over the last month," Marler said. "With the aid of a walker and braces, she was able to walk 100 feet. That doesn't maybe seem significant, but it is for her."

Will she be able to walk by herself again, at least semi-normally? "It's a long shot, but we hope so," Marler said.

Cargill has been providing financial help to Smith and her family since mid-2008, Marler said. While such aid isn't unheard of, Marler said it's not common, either. "The most common thing for a company to do is put its head in the sand and wait until they are on the courthouse steps."

Cargill said in the joint release that it "acknowledged responsibility for [Smith's] injuries since first learning of them."

The company says it has invested $1 billion in continuing meat science research and new food safety technologies to eliminate E. coli and other pathogens that can lead to illnesses.

"The unfortunate fact is that today's technology is not 100 percent effective in eliminating naturally occurring pathogens," Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said in an interview.

Smith's plight and Cargill's hamburger-making operations were the subject of an October New York Times article, "The Burger That Shattered Her Life," which recently won a Pulitzer Prize.

The Times reported that while federal inspectors repeatedly found that Cargill was violating its own safety procedures in handling ground beef, they imposed no fines or sanctions. In the end, the U.S. Department of Agriculture accepted Cargill's proposal to increase scrutiny of its suppliers, the Times reported.

The Times story received international attention and, along with other high-profile food safety fiascoes, has been used as a rationale to toughen U.S. food safety laws.

The Smith suit was one of eight that Marler handled involving Cargill's 2007 E. coli-related hamburger recall. The other seven, like most food contamination liability cases, were also settled.

Cargill made another major ground beef recall last year in a case involving more than 800,000 pounds of meat feared to be contaminated with salmonella. The ground beef, produced at a Cargill plant in Fresno, Calif., was linked by public health officials to at least 40 cases of salmonellosis, which can cause severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003