Stephanie Smith, a twenty-two year old children’s dance instructor left paralyzed from an E. coli-contaminated hamburger, filed suit yesterday against Cargill, the company that produced the meat.
Stephanie, who was profiled on the front page of the New York Times in October for her intense nine-month battle with E. coli, has acquired more than $2 million in medical bills and faces a lifetime of medical complications including brain damage and kidney failure.
“I have handled foodborne illness cases since the Jack in the Box outbreak nearly seventeen years ago, and I have never seen someone so severely injured survive,” said Stephanie’s attorney, Bill Marler. “She has lost the ability to walk, to dance, to have a family, to work or care for herself.”
“I don’t think it’s possible to adequately convey in a sentence or two the massive challenges Stephanie has faced and continues to face,” added Marler.
Stephanie became ill after consuming a hamburger that contained E. coli at dinner with her family. What she initially thought was simply a stomach bug, progressed quickly and ultimately caused constant seizures and kidney failure.
The seizures became so severe that doctors put Stephanie into a medically-induced coma, where she remained for three months, on a ventilator and dialysis.
Nine months in the hospital and two years of rehabilitation later, Stephanie remains in a wheelchair and requires constant care.
The hamburger tied to Stephanie’s illness was eventually linked to food giant Cargill, Inc.
Counsel for Cargill and Stephanie attempted mediation but were unable to agree on a settlement.
Mark Klein, a spokesman for Cargill said in a statement to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “Cargill deeply regrets Ms. Smith’s continuing suffering due to her illness. 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.”
Hundreds of media outlets covered Stephanie’s story (see video, below) in the wake of the New York Times expose. Her tale also inspired reactions from consumer advocacy groups, industry associations, and members of Congress.
Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture responded by writing a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack demanding accountability from large slaughterhouses.
“I am writing to strongly urge the [USDA] and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to investigate the disturbing allegations that were revealed in Sunday’s New York Times article about the beef inspection process,” wrote DeLauro.
Vilsack offered his own formal statement in response to the article. “No priority is greater to me than food safety and I am firmly committed to taking the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness,” said Vilsack, who also outlined some key steps the USDA is taking to help ensure safe food.
Photo Credit: Ben Garvin for the New York Times.