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Victims of E. coli in Finley to finally receive payment

September 6th, 2003

By Annette Cary Herald staff writer

The families of 11 children sickened by E. coli bacteria in a Finley school lunch nearly five years ago should finally receive $4.6 million awarded in a jury verdict.

On Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court declined to consider the case. It was the second time the court has refused, exhausting most of the school district's options for appeals.

"For over 2 1/2 years, some people have been having to pay on their medical bills," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney for the children's families. "It has been a hardship for some of those people."

A jury awarded $4.6 million in early 2001 to the children and their families after finding the district at fault for serving undercooked meat in tacos to Finley Elementary School students in October 1998. The district's insurer also will be required to pay 12 percent interest for the years payment was delayed by appeals.

The district's insurers again asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case, leading to the refusal announced Thursday.

The only appeal option left is to ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider, according to the families' attorneys. But motions for reconsideration are almost always denied and would be particularly unlikely in a case the Supreme Court has twice declined to consider, said Denis Stearns, another Seattle attorney for the plaintiffs.

"We're glad it's over," said Al Almquist, father of A.J. Almquist. "They've drug us through the mud from the beginning."

A.J., now 15, was 10 when he ate the taco lunch and later spent 13 days in the hospital. His family still has medical bills to pay.

Most of the jury verdict was awarded to Faith Maxwell, who was 2 when the taco lunch was served. Although she didn't eat the meal, the jury concluded that she was infected by a schoolchild who ate the lunch.

She was awarded $3.6 million, plus past medical expenses. Faith suffered a serious kidney complication and both plaintiff and defense attorneys agreed her kidneys will fail as a result.

Her parents could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Awards for the other 10 children started at $1,200 plus medical expenses for a child treated in an emergency room. Children besides Faith who had kidney problems and were taken to Children's Hospital in Seattle were awarded about $275,000, plus past medical expenses. Even if those children appear healthy now, they will need to be monitored for health problems.

Most of the money not spent on medical expenses so far will be held in trust for the children's education and medical expenses.

The district argued in its latest appeal to the state Supreme Court that a public school cannot be sued under the state's product liability law as a business would be.

"The Finley School District is not in the business of selling tacos," the district's insurer wrote in court papers. "Finley's lunch program is not a commercial activity aimed at the general public."

It also claimed the plaintiffs did not prove that Faith's illness was legally caused by the taco lunch, since she did not eat it.

Northern States Beef, which supplied the meat, settled out of court for $200,000 before the 2001 trial and denied the meat was tainted. Money from that settlement was used to pay legal costs and also to cover some medical costs.

The E. coli strain that contaminated the taco meal is carried by cattle and can contaminate meat in the slaughtering process. Some people who are infected have mild or no symptoms. But children and the elderly may develop severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Children, especially preschoolers, may develop a serious complication in which red blood cells are destroyed and the kidneys fail.

More on this outbreak: Finley School District E. coli Outbreak

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