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Outbreak News

Lawsuit filed in spinach death

November 1, 2006

Bellevue Leader - Bellevue, NE

Midlands News Service

Family members of a Bellevue woman who died after eating contaminated spinach filed a lawsuit Tuesday that they hope will improve food safety, a family member said.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Sarpy County District Court on behalf of the estate of 81-year-old Ruby Trautz of Bellevue. She died Aug. 31 after eating spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria.

Family members didn't rush into filing a lawsuit, said Ken Costello, Trautz's son-in-law. But they eventually decided that a lawsuit was one way to force the industry to improve safety, he said.

"If everybody shrugged their shoulders and said, 'Oh, gee, Grandma died, that just happens,' and they didn't do anything, there wouldn't be much change," Costello said.

The estate is suing Dole Food Co. of Westlake Village, Calif.; Natural Selections Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif.; No Frills Supermarkets of Omaha; and the undisclosed California farm where the spinach was grown.

According to the lawsuit, Trautz ate Dole brand baby spinach, which Nebraska public health officials linked to a national E. coli outbreak that sickened 204 people and caused three deaths. Natural Selections Foods bagged the spinach.

The suit claims that the companies were negligent in the manufacture, distribution and sale of the spinach.

The California farm is specifically targeted in the lawsuit for allegedly failing to maintain safe and sanitary conditions. The lawsuit alleges that feral pigs or other animals may have carried E.

coli through broken fences from the farm's cattle herd to the spinach field.

The lawsuit seeks damages, including compensation for pain and suffering, medical costs and loss of companionship, but no specific dollar amount.

Samantha Cabaluna, spokeswoman for Natural Selections Foods, said she could not comment specifically on the lawsuit. But Cabaluna also said that since the outbreak last summer, the company has made "huge strides" in improving safety.

The company has implemented a system of testing raw spinach before bagging - a program that the company modeled on the beef industry, she said.

A spokesman for No Frills Supermarkets in Omaha expressed surprise Tuesday that the firm was named in the suit.

"We complied with all federal, state and local food codes," said Joe Bosco, human resource director in charge of safety and sanitation for the stores. "We kept the product at 40 degrees or less, and we sold it before its sell-by date. We believe we acted in the best interest of our consumer and as any prudent business would act."

The other defendants could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit was the eighth filed by the Seattle law firm of Marler Clark in connection with the E. coli outbreak. A Lincoln firm is co-counsel.

A partner in the firm, attorney Bill Marler, represented victims of the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants.

More on this outbreak: Dole and Natural Selections Spinach E. coli Outbreak

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