Two women who became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections during an outbreak traced to the Ixtapa Family Mexican Restaurant in Lake Stevens, Washington, in October of 2008 filed lawsuits against the restaurant Monday.  Both plaintiffs are Everett, WA residents who tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 after eating food prepared at Ixtapa.

guacamole-featured.jpgInvestigators from the Snohomish County Health Department (SCHD) identified 23 “confirmed” and “probable cases” of E. coli associated with the Ixtapa restaurant outbreak.  Forty-one additional suspected cases were also identified by SCHD.  Four confirmed cases were hospitalized due to the severity of their symptoms, and one developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially life-threatening complication of E. coli infection that can lead to kidney failure and central nervous system impairment.  

The SCHD Communicable Disease program conducted statistical analysis to determine which foods served at Ixtapa were associated with illness.  According to the final outbreak report, “guacamole remained the only significant food exposure identified.”  But other foods consumed by ill Ixtapa customers could not be ruled out as other potential sources of E. coli.  Other potential sources of contamination included salsa, cross-contamination from a contaminated ingredient, or contamination by an infected food worker.

Plaintiff Jean Jubie’s Illness

Seventy-six-year-old Jean Jubie ate chips, salsa, and a taco salad made with ground beef, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and guacamole for lunch at Ixtapa on October 11, 2008.  

Five days later, around 6 a.m., she awoke with symptoms of E. coli infection, which included painful stomach cramps and diarrhea.  As the day progressed, she began to experience intermittent abdominal cramping, ached all over, and felt nauseated but did not vomit.  

The evening of October 16, Jean’s diarrhea became bloody and she sought medical treatment at the Providence Everett Medical Center Emergency Department.  She was treated for dehydration and a stool sample was submitted for E. coli O157:H7 testing.  

Jean was admitted to the hospital just after 1 a.m. on October 17, and remained there until October 19.  Throughout her stay she suffered abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea.  She required constant medical care and monitoring, including a CT scan of her abdomen and pelvis, repeat blood draws, stool samples, urine samples, and various medications.

By October 19, Jean had improved some.  She was still suffering from abdominal pain, but the diarrhea had mostly abated.   She told her doctors she wanted to go home and was discharged.  

The following day, October 20, the stool sample obtained three days earlier now revealed a heavy growth of E. coli O157:H7.  The stool culture was forwarded to the Washington Department of Health lab for confirmatory testing and Jean was contacted by SCHD for an interview regarding potential exposures to E. coli in the days prior to her illness.

Jean remained weak and felt sick for several weeks.  Too feeble to work outdoors in her garden or even to take care of normal household chores, she had to hire someone to help out. Jean continues to suffer ill effects from her E. coli O157:H7 illness.

Plaintiff Sally Ring’s Illness

Fifty-four-year-old Sally Ring and her husband William dined out almost weekly at the Lake Stevens Ixtapa restaurant prior to the 2008 E. coli outbreak.  On October 9, 2008, the couple shared chicken fajitas at Ixtapa.  Sally also ate chips, salsa, sour cream, guacamole, refried beans, tortillas and Spanish rice.

Sally began to feel unusually tired and listless the following weekend.  Although she reported to work on Monday, she canceled her after-work plans and went to bed early.

Convinced she had some sort of flu, Sally called in sick to work Tuesday.  By Wednesday morning, her symptoms had worsened and Sally was experiencing severe stomach cramps and diarrhea.  She sought treatment for her illness at a walk-in clinic close to her home and was given anti-nausea and pain-relief medications; however, taking them caused her to vomit.

Everything Sally tried to eat or drink made her sick.  Strong cramps preceded vomiting or diarrhea, which soon became streaked with blood.

At 8 a.m on Thursday, October 16, Sally called her primary-care physician, and was urged to get to a hospital immediately.  Too ill to drive, she was forced to call her husband out of a business meeting to take her to the Providence Medical Center Emergency Room (ER).  

At the ER, Sally submitted a stool sample for testing and was treated for dehydration.  She was prescribed antibiotics and discharged that evening.  

Four days later, on October 20, Sally was still experiencing non-stop diarrhea and went to see her primary care physician, who had been notified by the hospital that Sally’s stool specimen tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.  Sally was ordered to stop taking the antibiotics previously prescribed to her and was told that she would not be able to return to work until she submitted two stool samples that returned negative for E. coli.  

Later the same day, Sally was contacted by a communicable disease investigator with the Snohomish County Health District, who took detailed notes of everything Sally had eaten in the days before she became ill, including her meal at Ixtapa.

Sally went back to work on November 3, 2008, tired, drawn and twenty pounds thinner.   She faced three weeks of backlogged work, but even her regular workload was now so exhausting she napped each evening after getting home.  She seemed susceptible to every respiratory virus going around, and although she was eating only easily digestible foods, such as rice milk, she continued to be plagued by diarrhea.

Sally has since received substantial medical attention for ongoing medical problems caused by her E. coli O157:H7 infection.

Legal Action

Jean and Sally are among 21 victims of the Ixtapa E. coli outbreak represented by Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm with a practice dedicated to representing victims of foodborne illness.  

The firm filed its first lawsuit against Ixtapa on October 22, 2008.  That lawsuit was filed on behalf of the parents of a 9-year-old girl who also became ill with an E. coli infection after eating at Ixtapa.