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E. coli suits sent to Circuit Court

Cases don't belong in U.S. court, judge rules


of the Journal Sentinel staff

April 26, 2001

A judge ruled Wednesday that lawsuits stemming from last summer's E. coli outbreak cannot be heard in federal court.

The decision is potentially significant, lawyers said, because the company most able to pay damages to victims of the outbreak might have had a better chance of defending against plaintiffs' claims in federal court.

Lawsuits were filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on behalf of 11 families who had one or more members sickened last July by E. coli traced to Sizzler restaurants in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. The lawsuits named Sizzler and the local owners of the two restaurants as defendants, and some suits also named beef supplier Excel Corp.

Excel Corp. sought to have those cases heard in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, arguing that it was a more proper setting because beef suppliers are governed by federal agricultural regulations.

But on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Clevert ruled that the cases don't belong in federal court, ordering instead that they be heard in state Circuit Court.

The ruling is important, said Seattle lawyer William Marler, who represents one of the families, because among the three defendants, Excel Corp. would be the most able to pay damages if it were found liable for the outbreak. Moreover, he said, Excel believed that under federal law, it would be more difficult for the company to be found liable because of the numerous federal regulations that control its industry.

The ruling means that all the cases will be heard by Circuit Judge David Hansher. A trial is scheduled for May 2003.

One child died and at least 62 people got sick in the E. coli outbreak.

More on this outbreak: Sizzler E. coli Outbreak

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