Hunter Browning was in Marine Bootcamp, being verbally, mentally and physically beaten down when E. coli O157:H7 delivered a blow that made it impossible for him to build back up.

“In the Marine Corps, I’m seen as the other. Being a recruit is derogatory until you finish training, you’re worthless. They break you down to build you up but it’s not fair if you don’t get built back up,” Browning said recently.

This photo was taken by Browning’s friend from boot camp at a restaurant in the fall of 2018 in San Diego. Courtesy of Hunter Browning

In Oct.  2017 an outbreak of E.coli O157:H7 swept through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and Camp Pendleton. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 62 confirmed cases, 62 probable and120 suspected cases. Thirty people were hospitalized and 15 were diagnosed with HUS, a type of kidney failure known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. Patients’ ages ranged from 17 to 28 years with a median of 18 years. Consumption of undercooked beef was linked to the outbreak and was traced back to a single ground beef supplier at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.

One of the victims of this outbreak was Hunter Browning, an 18-year-old Marine recruit.

“What 20-year-old do you know with a full hip replacement?” Browning asked. Browning is dealing with the lifelong impact of food poisoning. “I don’t know how to deal with it. It’s not normal. When I tell people, they have a shocked look on their face and they pity me.”

In high school in Aberdeen, SD, Browning participated in drama clubs and skied in the winter. He graduated from high school in the spring of 2016. A call from a Marine recruiter convinced him that he was an ideal Marine recruit: fit, disciplined and bright. Browning was eager to challenge himself and gain the type of experience only the Marines could provide.

Boot camp

Browning took his first trip out west in the fall of 2017 to begin boot camp at the recruit depot in San Diego.

I settled in pretty quick. I just went with the flow and tried not to screw up.” Browning said he made friends quickly, the group struggle bonding the recruits.

Marine boot camp is 13 weeks long. Browning thrived during the first phase of his training. It was not until his eighth week that he started to feel ill. 

“The first symptom I showed was a fever. And then later, I was getting stomach aches,” he said.

Browning described his symptoms as increasing severe.

“They make us do this exercise at night, where they had staff that was trying to invade our barracks building. Toward the end of the exercise, I started to get this pretty heavy fever. Throughout the night, there had to be a group of four people up, making sure that nothing goes bad, or that none of the trainees leave. I was at the front post and you can’t leave when you’re doing that, and I really needed to go to the bathroom. I could feel diarrhea coming on or something. And I really needed one of the other guys to take the front post. They weren’t willing to do it because they thought I wouldn’t come back. So, it wasn’t until after I got off fire watch that I was able to go to the bathroom, and it was definitely diarrhea. Before we left the barracks I had diarrhea again, this time it had blood.”

Browning said he had never experienced pain like that. He was afraid to tell the instructor, but he was in too much pain to not. The drill inspector sent Browning to the medical center but despite running tests, they could not figure out the cause of his illness.

He explained to medical personnel that he couldn’t eat, was throwing up and had bloody diarrhea. They took his temperature and thought he had the flu. They gave him an anti-diarrheal medicine — Pepto-Bismol — a solution that Browning now realizes was counterproductive if not harmful as his body tried to expel the E. coli.

Browning stayed in bed five days before returning to physical training. Despite the pain and fever, he pushed through his physical training. But when taking off his training clothes at the end of the day, Browing noticed his legs had swollen. He recalls the other trainees’ mouths dropping when they saw how large his legs had become, from his thighs to his feet. Browing was sent to the emergency room by ambulance.

In the emergency room, blood tests were run and Browing was told that he was suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) connected to Shiga toxin-producing E.coli. Browning had heard of E. coli but had no idea what kind of damage it could do to his body. In just a couple of weeks, Browing says he lost more than 15 pounds, going from 165 to 149 pounds.

Contaminated food

Browning recalls in vivid detail the mess hall where he ate the burger contaminated with  E.coli. 

“You get your tray and your silverware, and then there’s a salad bar with a bunch of different salads or toppings for salads, and then after that, they have like a main course line, so between they’ll have like fruit sometimes, and in the morning they’ll have cereal, then the main course line where they’ll have the hot food,” Browning recalled. “And then you go past and you take a left and go past the drink machines to sit down. Then you get back up to get a drink. It’s crowded and there’s always lots of yelling. It’s very stressful.” 

These details are etched in Browning’s memory because of the strong emotions surrounding that day. Browning’s life was altered because of this mess hall, the food and how it was prepared.

“There are bouts of anger, of very extreme feelings toward my situation. Because it could have been different in so many ways. If the food was cooked properly. I would be out doing my job in the Marine Corps,” he said.

The military officials held tight to the investigation process and information about it, so it was not until much later that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the link to the mess hall and its ground beef. Browning still remembers the hamburger and the day he ate it.

“On Saturdays, they have burger day, and that was when I got sick. I didn’t have symptoms until the Thursday after.”

Medical Rehab Platoon

This photo was taken in fall 2018 when Browning met up with a friend from the medical rehab unit for the platoon’s Marine graduation in San Diego. Courtesy of Hunter Browning

After his trip to the emergency room, Browning was sent to the medical rehab platoon, where he would spend the next eight months.

Browning was in constant pain, especially in his hip joint. X-rays and MRIs revealed a divot in his femur head. He was diagnosed with septic arthritis and osteonecrosis in his hip joint caused by the Shiga toxin-producing E.coli. At first, it was the cartilage that hurt, but as the cartilage wore away, it was the femur head grinding directly against his hip that caused the pain. Standing, sitting, and any movement in between was agonizing. Browning walked with crutches or with a cane.

In late December that year, two months into his stay at the medical platoon, a hip specialist informed him that it was unlikely he’d be able to stay in the military. Browning had a hard time accepting his new reality. He recalls thinking, “I’ll get better and I’ll go back to training.”

Having not finished his training and still a Marine recruit, Browing was given little access to the world outside of the medical rehab platoon.

“You don’t have your phone. You can’t watch TV,” Browning said.

He spent his time reading and doing crafts as he waited in six-week blocks to see the doctor again. Each time the doctor told him that they would check in another six weeks.

“That was awful. You don’t know how long you’re going to be there.”

Surgery

This photo was taken Aug. 2018 at the Wounded Warrior Battalion Naval Medical Center in San Diego when Browning first woke up after his hip surgery. Courtesy of Hunter Browning

In March 2018 – five months into his stay at the medical platoon — Browning had his first surgery. A left hip decompression was done. Calcium phosphate bone cement was injected into the femoral head cavity to provide structural support. A checkup two-weeks after the surgery showed that Browning’s hip was deteriorating quicker than initially thought. His doctor at the medical rehab platoon recommended a hip replacement. Administrative details and funding questions made Browning wait.

“There was a bit of a feud happening between the doctor and the marine corp, just because nobody in my position had ever got a hip replacement before and that’s a big-ticket item,” Browning said 

Finally, in July 2018, Browning was moved from the medical rehab platoon to the Wounded Warrior Battalion where they would perform a total left hip replacement. In August, Browning had his hip replacement. His father flew out to stay with him during the surgery and help him navigate during his recovery. “It’s not like being completely fixed and mobile. That’s the struggle, knowing that it’s going to be different forever.”

Browning walked with assistance the day after his surgery. He used a walker for the first couple of weeks, progressed to a cane, and then eventually, was able to walk without assistance.

“The thing that really helped me improve was that it wasn’t painful all the time. It wasn’t bone on bone grinding anymore,” he said.

In December  2018 — after months of rehab — Browning’s doctor at the Wounded Warrior Battalion concluded that the recruit was no longer fit for service because of his hip replacement. Seventeen months after leaving home for boot camp, Browning left the Marine Corps and returned home to South Dakota where he was able to spend the holidays with his family. 

Life Now

In this photo, taken in August 2018 outside of the Wounded Warrior Battalion Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Browning was one week past his hip surgery. Courtesy of Hunter Browning

Long term, Browning will need at least one more hip replacement, and possibly two more in his lifetime. As the plastic liner inside the hip joint wears down he will endure more frequent and severe pain. Back in South Dakota, Browning can no longer enjoy the winter sports. Skiing is too dangerous for his hip. Even walking outside the house in the cold weather and potentially slipping on ice has become a terrifying possibility.

“I could have the anchor bust out of my femur, and it would be really painful. That’s something I have to watch for all the time,” he said.

Browning still has pain when standing for too long or sitting on a hard surface. The limited leg motion has made simple tasks more difficult, and even repositioning his leg while sleeping has been a challenge.

“I would hope that no one would have to go through what I’ve been through. There were a lot of things that could have gone better, and I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

But harder than the physical situation with his hip and the impact E. coli has had on his body is what it prevented him from being able to accomplish.

“I didn’t even get to finish boot camp, so they don’t even consider me a marine,” he said. “It’s very difficult not to have negative feelings. Given a chance, I would have worked for everything.”

Browning said he is thankful for his doctors and all they did to prevent the situation from becoming any worse, and for his family’s continued support. He will turn 22 in March and plans on attending college in the fall to study business. He also hopes to get a pilot license and dreams of teaching flying.

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A district court has ruled that victims of an E. coli outbreak on a Marine Corps base have sufficiently alleged that Sodexo Management Inc. exercised a conscious disregard of risk, which is the standard for punitive damages under California law

The court in the Southern District of California was tasked to consider whether the proposed amendments have the facts that constitute a valid claim for punitive damage. In the now approved amended complaints, eight plaintiffs added claims for punitive damages for counts of strict liability and negligence. Plaintiff Vincent Grano initiated the action in the lead case and plaintiffs in all seven member cases initiated their actions Oct. 7, 2019. 

The cases are related to an Oct. 2017 E. coli outbreak that swept through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and Camp Pendleton. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 62 confirmed, 62 probable and 120 suspected patients. Thirty of those patients required hospitalization and 15 developed HUS.

The plaintiffs, represented by Marler Clark LLC and co-counsel in California, suffered injuries from this 2017 E. coli outbreak at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) and Edson Range at Camp Pendleton, CA. These injuries included hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) known for causing permanent kidney injury. Several plaintiffs suffered seizures and were required to undergo total hip replacements. The plaintiffs have brought strict liability and negligence claims against Sodexo and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. for injuries caused by this outbreak.

In the now approved amended complaints the plaintiffs added claims for punitive damages for both counts of strict liability and negligence. Plaintiff Vincent Grano initiated the action in the lead case Aug. 3, 2019, and plaintiffs in all other seven member cases initiated their actions Oct. 7, 2019.

Sodexo is a New York corporation that is responsible for providing food and facility management services for the United States Navy at both MCRD and Edson Range. Also named in the suit, is  Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., which manufactures, distributes, and sells meat products to Sodexo.

The plaintiffs allege that Sodexo knew of the risk of foodborne illness and that the company has had a long-standing pattern of inaction in addressing the risk.

The lawsuit contends Sodexo employees and management officials had specific knowledge of the risks posed by undercooked beef and failed to review their meat-cooking processes over the course of a 15-17 year period leading up to the Marine Corps E.coli outbreak.

The court’s task wasn’t to award punitive damages, but rather to assess whether the proposed amended pleadings allege facts that would constitute a valid claim for punitive damages. 

Expert testimony
Richard A. Raymond, who is a medical doctor and a former Undersecretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was asked by the law firm of Marler Clark LLP to review records relevant and provide testimony to the court.

“Professionally, I have devoted a significant part of my professional career to food safety and public health. I have never seen behavior on this level in any hamburger operation, and that it involved the production of such vast quantities of hamburgers so clearly magnified all risks. Sodexo did not have any control over this operation whatsoever,” Raymond said.

Raymond said it is astonishing, disturbing, and frankly anger-provoking that Sodexo does it like this in 2017.

The plaintiffs’ state that their motion to amend is not based on a single meal. As alleged in their amended complaint, “it is almost two decades of Sodexo willfully ignoring its own institutional knowledge of the unique risks posed by ground beef and E. coli 0157 and its refusal to implement a scientifically-validated, multi-control point system up to industry standards to ensure it produced and served safe hamburgers.”

The case so far:

  • Sept. 19, 2018 — Grano filed a first amended complaint.
  • Oct.  22, 2019 — Grano filed a Second Amended Complaint (SAC), adding Cargill as a defendant on the basis that Cargill had sold to Sodexo the allegedly contaminated ground beef patties that give rise to plaintiffs’ claims. 
  • May 4, 2020 — The court granted plaintiffs’ motion to file amended complaints in all member cases in order to add US Foods as a defendant, in response to Sodexo’s decision to file third-party complaints against US Foods in the lead and member cases. 
  • June 5, 2020 — The court ordered that plaintiffs had until July 6, 2020 to file any motion for leave to amend and/or add claims. 
  • July 6, 2020 — Plaintiffs filed this instant motion.
  • Aug. 18, 2020 — The court ordered the motion to grant file amended complaints.

Victim profile

August 2018 — One week after surgery, Outside Wounded Warrior Battalion Naval Medical Center in San Diego

Earlier this year, Food Safety News had the chance to interview Hunter Browning, one of the Marine recruits, who was part of the E. coli outbreak.

“There are bouts of anger, of very extreme feelings toward my situation. Because it could have been different in so many ways. If the food was cooked properly. I would be out doing my job in the Marine Corps,” Browning told FSN.

Long term, Browning will need at least one more hip replacement, and possibly two more in his lifetime. Browning still has pain when standing for too long or sitting on a hard surface. The limited leg motion has made simple tasks more difficult. Even repositioning his leg while sleeping is a challenge.

“I didn’t even get to finish boot camp, so they don’t even consider me a marine,” he said. “It’s very difficult not to have negative feelings. Given a chance, I would have worked for everything.”

Browning’s full profile can be read here.

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Food Safety News was founded in 2009 by the world-recognized food safety expert, attorney Bill Marler.

Since then, FSN has grown into a leading outlet for news about all aspects of the food safety arena — with 40,000 followers on Twitter, 200,000 likes on Facebook, and more than 40,000 subscribers that receive daily email updates with FSN’s latest stories. Our articles and social media posts reach and inform tens of thousands of readers everyday. 

Here at Food Safety News, we are determined as ever to bring our readers the latest updates in Food Safety innovation, legislation, food policy and law, recalls, outbreaks, and the stories of those impacted by food poisoning.

This past year we have covered numerous outbreaks, from E.coli in romaine lettuce to Fresh Express’s Cyclospora current outbreak. And this week we have been coving the Salmonella outbreak linked to Thomson International Inc. onions

We have spotlighted a marine recruit whose life plans were dramatically changed by his fight with E.colia South African woman who’s outlook on life was changed by Listeria poisoning, a mother whose heart stopped three times while in the hospital with E.coli poisoning, and many more food poisoning victims.

A bit about us — Food Safety News staff

Bill Marler, Publisher, founder

Marler is the Managing Partner of Marler Clark LLP, a Seattle, WA, law firm that specializes in foodborne illness cases. He began representing victims of foodborne illness in 1993, when he represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157: H7 outbreak traced to burgers from Jack in the Box restaurants in multiple states. She received an unprecedented $15.6 million settlement.

Dan Flynn, Editor in Chief

Flynn is a Northern Colorado-based writer and editor with more than 15 years of food safety experience.  As a public affairs professional, he worked with government and regulatory agencies at the local, state, and federal levels.  Flynn also worked for daily newspapers for a decade.

Coral Beach, Managing Editor

Beach is a print journalist with more than 30 years of experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, trade publications, and freelance clients including the Kansas City Star, the Independence Examiner and Land Line Magazine. Before joining Food Safety News, Beach was a reporter for The Packer newspaper, an online and broadsheet trade publication covering the fresh produce industry in North America.

Joe Whitworth, Writer/Reporter — Europe and World

Whitworth is a food and beverage trade journalist. Prior to reporting for Food Safety News, he worked for William Reed Business Media since 2012 as Editor of Food Quality News before becoming a food safety editor for Food Navigator. He is based in England. 

Jonan Pilet, Writer/Reporter and Social Media Manager

Pilet earned his Bachelor of Arts in writing at Houghton College in New York. He also studied writing at the University of Oxford and received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Seattle Pacific University. 

Cookson Beecher, Contributing Writer

A journalist by trade, Beecher spent 12 years working as an agriculture and environment reporter for Capital Press, a four-state newspaper that covers agricultural and forestry issues in the Pacific Northwest. Before working at Capital Press, she was the editor of a small-town newspaper, the Courier Times, in Skagit County, WA.

Chuck Jolley, Ad Director

Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry. He’s also president of the Meat Industry Hall of Fame, honoring the legendary figures of the industry.

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