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Parents sue school district, others linked to E. coli outbreak

Three Washington State families  are seeking payment of medical bills and other damages for children who were hospitalized with E. coli infections after school activities at the Milk Maker’s Festival in Whatcom County.

Milk-Makers-Fest-bleachers

Bleachers used for the Milk Makers Festival had been stored in a dairy barn and tested positive for the outbreak isolates of E. coli that infected at least 25 children.

The civil suit, filed in Superior Court in Whatcom County, WA, names Lynden School District, the Northwest Washington Fair Association and Whatcom County Dairy Women as being responsible for the infections and liable under state law.

“This is a case of everything they could do wrong, they did do wrong,” said Bill Marler, the Seattle food safety attorney who is representing the families. “It’s almost like they ignored every recommendation from the CDC on how to handle events where children are around animals.”

Teenagers who helped set up a hay bale maze and bleachers for the Milk Maker’s Festival in April 2015, as well as first-graders who later played in the maze, were not given the opportunity to wash their hands before being given milk refreshments at the fairgrounds, according to the civil lawsuit.

Lab tests of samples from the maze area and bleachers, which had been stored in a dairy barn, showed the same E. coli O157:H7 isolates detected in at least 25 sick children. Ten required hospitalization. Six outbreak victims developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure.

The parents and children involved in the case filed March 7 are: Amy Hayes-Shaw and Craig Shaw and their son Toby Hager; Elizabeth and Palmer Myers and their children Halle and Palmer Jr.; and Amanda and Chad Neiser and their children Bennet, Macy and Selah.

Older student volunteers built the hay bale maze that younger children played in at the festival.

Older student volunteers built the hay bale maze that younger children played in at the festival.

Toby Hager, 15, was one of the student volunteers who helped set up the maze. He reported the only hand sanitizer container he could find was empty and that there weren’t any other hand-washing options available. No one suggested he wash up before drinking milk provided by the dairy women’s group, according to the lawsuit.

The elementary children reported they were not required to wash their hands after petting animals, visiting the dairy barn or before eating lunch. From April 21-23, festival organizers say at least 1,300 first-graders attended the event.

A report by the Whatcom County Health Department confirmed what the children reported. The department’s final report also found:

  • Event attendees who reported washing or sanitizing their hands before eating lunch were less likely to become ill;
  • Children who reported always biting their nails were more likely to become ill;
  • Leaving animal areas without washing hands might have contributed to an increased risk of transmission; and
  • Eating in animal areas might have contributed to an increased risk of transmission.

Editor’s note: Attorney Bill Marler is a founding partner of Marler Clark LLP and is publisher of Food Safety News.

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