Did You Suffer an E. coli Infection in a Food Poisoning Outbreak?

The E. coli strain most often associated with large-scale food poisoning outbreaks is E. coli O157, a dangerous Shiga toxin-producing E. coli that attacks cells within the body and can cause serious illness in humans. This E. coli strain can be transmitted through contaminated food or water, or through contact with infected animals, people or the environment.

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E. coli outbreaks

The E. coli strain most often associated with large-scale food poisoning outbreaks is E. coli O157, a dangerous Shiga toxin-producing E. coli that attacks cells within the body and can cause serious illness in humans. This E. coli strain can be transmitted through contaminated food or water, or through contact with infected animals, people or the environment.

Like most consumers, you probably assume that the food you purchase from the grocery store and order out at restaurants is safe and free from potentially harmful bacteria like E. coli. In reality, foodborne illness is the eighth leading cause of death among Americans. If that comes as a surprise to you, that is probably because you have no idea how many foodborne illness cases there are in the United States each year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), foodborne illnesses like E. coli infections sicken approximately 48 million people every year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. If you or a loved one has fallen ill because of an E. coli infection, do not hesitate to discuss your legal rights with a knowledgeable E. coli outbreak attorney. Our consumer advocates at the Consumer Justice Foundation know how important it is for people harmed by dangerous and defective consumer products or a company’s negligence to pursue fair and timely compensation for their losses, and we can help put you in touch with a reputable E. coli infection lawyer today. 

What is E. coli?

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are a large and diverse group of bacteria that are commonly implicated in food poisoning cases in the U.S. According to the CDC, E. coli bacteria are found in the intestines of people and animals, as well as in foods and the environment. Many E. coli strains are harmless, but there are some that are pathogenic, meaning they can cause severe illness in affected individuals – typically either diarrhea, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, respiratory illness or other illnesses. The strains of E. coli that can cause diarrhea are categorized into six pathotypes, including Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC), Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC), Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC), Enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC), Enteroinvasive E. coli (EIEC), and Diffusely adherent E. coli (DAEC). 

E. coli Infection Symptoms

The E. coli strain most often associated with large-scale food poisoning outbreaks is E. coli O157, a dangerous Shiga toxin-producing E. coli that attacks cells within the body and can cause serious illness in humans. This E. coli strain can be transmitted through contaminated food or water, or through contact with infected animals, people or the environment, and symptoms of an infection will typically appear within three to four days after the exposure occurs. If you consume food contaminated with E. coli, you may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Severe stomach cramps

Long-Term Effects of E. coli Infections

Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS)

In some cases, E. coli infections can be fatal. But even when they aren’t, the consequences of a serious E. coli infection can be life-changing for affected individuals and their loved ones. One of the most devastating complications linked to E. coli infections is hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially life-threatening illness affecting the blood and kidneys that can lead to kidney failure and other serious problems, such as brain damage and hypertension. HUS is most likely to affect children and is the leading cause of kidney failure in children younger than 18. Between 5% and 10% of people diagnosed with an E. coli O157 infection develop HUS, and while most people recover within a few weeks, some suffer permanent injuries or die. 

Kidney Disease, Cardiovascular Disease, and High Blood Pressure

People infected with E. coli who do not develop HUS may still face a risk of long-term health consequences, including kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure, that may emerge years after the initial exposure. In one study of a 2000 E. coli outbreak in Canada linked to contaminated water that affected more than 2,000 people and caused seven deaths, researchers found that people who had been infected with E. coli had a 33% increased risk of developing high blood pressure, and more than three times the risk of developing kidney problems, compared to those who were not affected by the 2000 outbreak. Study participants who experienced gastroenteritis in the 2000 outbreak also had more than double the risk of suffering a cardiovascular event, such as a stroke, heart attack, or congestive heart failure. “These results suggest that E. coli infection may have long-term effects that can progress silently,” the study authors noted. “People who have had E. coli infection may require followup to prevent these outcomes, or minimize their impact.”

Possible Sources of E. coli Infections

Foodborne illnesses like E. coli infection occur when a person ingests the bacteria, typically by eating contaminated food (i.e. an undercooked hamburger) or drinking water that has not been disinfected (i.e. contaminated lake water or well water). E. coli infections can also occur if a person comes in contact with cattle or other farm animals or the feces of an infected person (i.e. by working with cows on a farm or changing dirty diapers) and the infection can be passed very easily from person to person, especially among young children.

Contaminated Food Products

One of the most common sources of infection with E. coli is contaminated food. According to the CDC, there are certain foods that are considered high-risk for E. coli contamination, such as unpasteurized (raw) milk, unpasteurized apple cider, and soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk. Due to this risk, the CDC recommends that people avoid these foods altogether. However, E. coli is commonly found in cow manure and the bacteria can easily be passed to people through other tainted foods, such as spinach, lettuce and other fresh vegetables. Foods contaminated with E. coli may include produce and other food products purchased from the grocery store, a food distributor, or a popular wholesale food club like BJ’s and Sam’s Club, or even prepared food served by a catering company or restaurant. Food safety problems related to leafy greens and other vegetables are a longstanding issue in the U.S., and spinach, lettuce and sprouts are all leading sources of E. coli. Ground beef is another common source of E. coli contamination.

Romaine Lettuce Outbreaks

Contaminated lettuce has been a major contributor to E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years. In fact, there were E. coli outbreaks in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that were linked to leafy greens (2017) and romaine lettuce (2018 and 2019). In many cases, contaminated food products are distributed to restaurants and retailers across the country before the problem is discovered, in which case these outbreaks can become nationwide events. The 2019 E. coli outbreak, which was traced back to tainted romaine lettuce harvested from the Salinas Valley growing region of California, sickened 167 people from 27 states. A total of 85 hospitalizations were reported in connection with the outbreak, including 15 people who developed HUS. To reduce the risk of contracting an E. coli infection during these outbreaks, the CDC advised consumers to dispose of all romaine lettuce products grown in the Salinas Valley region, including hearts of romaine, bagged salad mixes, and even organic romaine lettuce. 

Dole Spinach Outbreak

Another common culprit in E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. is fresh spinach. A 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 200 people in 26 states, resulting in 102 hospitalizations, 31 cases of HUS, and three deaths, was traced back to pre-packaged Dole Baby Spinach distributed by another company in the Salinas Valley region of California, Natural Selection Foods. An investigation into the outbreak revealed that the E. coli strain found in ill patients and the bagged spinach matched fecal samples from cattle and wild pigs located in the area surrounding the Paicines Ranch where the affected spinach was grown and water samples taken from the San Benito River, which flows through the ranch. The cattle and wild pigs having ready access to the river could have resulted in the contamination of the river with E. coli. And while the river is not directly used for irrigation on the ranch, investigators concluded that E. coli in the river water may have reached wells on the ranch and contaminated the water source used to irrigate the affected spinach crops.

Animal Exposure

E. coli infections occur when the affected person or persons get small amounts of human or animal feces in their mouth, which happens more often than you might think. This can occur as a result of eating contaminated food or it can come from contact with an infected animal. According to the CDC, the most common type of E. coli infection that causes illness in humans is E. coli O157, which is naturally found in the intestinal tracts of many farm animals, including healthy cattle, sheep, deer and goats. Animals that carry E. coli O157 may appear healthy and can still shed the bacteria in their stool, which may result in their skin, feathers, fur or the environment where they live becoming contaminated with E. coli. A major source of E. coli infection for humans is cattle, though goats, sheep and deer can also spread E. coli O157 to humans and other animals. People who work with cows at dairy farms and people who come in contact with contaminated environments at petting zoos, farms, fairs, or other animal exhibits may be at risk for E. coli infection. Pigs, birds and other kinds of animals can also pick up E. coli bacteria in the environment and spread it.

Common Causes of E. coli Outbreaks

Now that you have a basic understanding of the mechanics of E. coli infections and some common sources of infection (i.e. contaminated food and animals), it is important to be aware of the kinds of circumstances that can lead to an E. coli outbreak. The term “outbreak” is generally used by the CDC any time two or more people acquire the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink, though there are other ways one can contract E. coli. The following are some common causes of E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. associated with contaminated food or animal exposure:

  • Inadequate food and safety regulations established by the FDA and USDA
  • Failure to follow proper food safety protocols at restaurants and other food service entities
  • Food preparation by people who did not wash their hands well after using the bathroom
  • Failure to thoroughly wash hands after handling raw meat
  • Consumption of meats that are not cooked to the recommended temperatures
  • Cross contamination of beef products with foods that will not be cooked prior to consumption (i.e. burger buns, fresh fruits and vegetables)
  • Failure to wash utensils and surfaces that have come in contact with raw beef or its juices
  • Contact with farm animals or their environments at petting zoos, fairs and other public animal venues
  • Fecal contamination of raw milk by the cows or goats being milked 
  • Fecal contamination of well water
  • Contamination of lake or stream water by cattle or other animals

E. coli Outbreak Prevention

There is no vaccine for E. coli infections, nor are there any medications that can be used to protect against such infections. There are, however, certain steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of E. coli infections and outbreaks. Consider the following key health and safety recommendations:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom or changing diapers, and after coming in contact with animals at farms, fairs, petting zoos, or other animal exhibits.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating food.
  • Avoid cross contamination in food preparation areas by thoroughly cleaning countertops, cutting boards, and any utensils that come in contact with raw meat.
  • Cook meats thoroughly before consuming.
  • Avoid raw milk, fresh apple cider and other unpasteurized dairy products and juices.
  • Avoid swallowing water while swimming or playing in lakes, swimming pools, streams or ponds.

E. Coli Infection Cases in the U.S.

E. coli infections can cause serious complications in affected individuals, possibly requiring hospitalization or even resulting in death. In fact, the CDC estimates that E. coli infections are responsible for as many as 2,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year. The following are some examples of cases where people of various ages have been adversely affected by E. coli-related illnesses. We also discuss in further detail below some notable E. coli outbreak cases and lawsuits from across the country.  

  • A 19-year-old dancer suffers irreversible brain damage and paralysis after being sickened by an E. coli-contaminated hamburger.
  • A 57-year-old mother of six is confined to a hospital bed for two years after suffering multiple organ damage as a result of HUS from an E. coli infection.
  • A teenage girl is hospitalized with a debilitating gastrointestinal illness after consuming a contaminated salad bowl purchased at a Chipotle restaurant.
  • A nine-year-old girl is hospitalized and nearly dies after ingesting a Jack in the Box hamburger contaminated with E. coli bacteria. She is diagnosed with HUS, spends 40 days in a coma, and suffers permanent organ damage, learning disabilities, and other devastating E. coli infection side effects. 

Pursuing Compensation for E. Coli Outbreak Illnesses

Types of Claims in E. coli Infection Cases

Defective Product Claims

If you or your child has suffered an E. coli infection and there is evidence linking the infection to contaminated food, whether the food was sold at a grocery store or served to you at a restaurant, you may have a defective product claim against the entity responsible for the contamination. Depending on the case, this may include food suppliers, distributors, retailers, restaurants and others.

Personal Injury Claims

As we noted earlier, the adverse human health effects of an E. coli infection can be long-lasting and may require ongoing medical care. If you or someone you love was sickened by an E. coli infection and suffered kidney failure, brain damage, nerve damage, or another long-term medical condition, you may have a legal claim against the responsible party under personal injury law.

Wrongful Death Claims

While some E. coli infections are minor, others are more serious and may even lead to death in some cases. If your loved one died as a result of an E. coli outbreak, you may be able to pursue compensation for the devastating losses your family has suffered by filing a wrongful death claim against those responsible for the outbreak. 

How an E. coli Infection Lawsuit Can Help

If you or someone you love has been sickened by an E. coli infection from contaminated food, water or animals, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit to recover compensation for the harm you have suffered as a result of the infection. The key to successfully obtaining compensation for an E. coli infection is determining where fault for your illness lies. For instance, if you were sickened by contaminated lettuce, depending on what factors caused or contributed to the contamination, you may have a claim against the farm where the lettuce was grown, the plant where the lettuce was processed, the company that distributed the lettuce, the retailer that sold the lettuce, or the restaurant that served you the lettuce. By holding the at-fault party or parties legally liable for the harm you have suffered, you can pursue compensation for:

  • Medical expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Lost wages (due to missed time at work)
  • Loss of earning capacity (if your illness is such that you are no longer able to perform the same work you did before)
  • Prescription medication costs
  • The cost of diagnostic testing
  • Emotional trauma

E. coli infections are serious and it is not uncommon for outbreaks to result in one or more deaths. If your loved one died after being infected with E. coli from contaminated food or water or from exposure to farm animals at a petting zoo, farm or fair, you may be able to recover many of the same damages noted above, as well as compensation for funeral and burial costs, loss of companionship, loss of consortium, loss of financial support, and other damages related to your loved one’s unexpected death.

Timeline of E. coli Outbreaks and Litigation

Many well-known companies have been implicated in E. coli outbreaks over the years, some more than once. The following are just some examples of E. coli outbreak cases that have sickened individuals in certain states (or multiple states) and resulted in litigation and/or a nationwide recall of contaminated food products:

  • 1993 – Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Western States)
  • 1998 – Bauer Meat E. coli litigation (Georgia)
  • 1999 – Golden Corral E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Nebraska)
  • 1999 – KFC E. coli outbreak lawsuit (Ohio)
  • 2000 – AFG/Supervalu E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Minnesota)
  • 2001 – China Buffet E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Minnesota)
  • 2001 – Finley Elementary School E. coli outbreak lawsuit (Washington)
  • 2002 – BJ’s Wholesale Club E. coli litigation (New York & New Jersey)
  • 2004 – Carneco/Sam’s Club E. coli  outbreak lawsuits (Minnesota & Wisconsin)
  • 2005 – Big Fresno Fair E. coli outbreak lawsuit (California)
  • 2005 – AgVenture Farms Petting Zoo E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Florida)
  • 2006 – Dole Spinach E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Nationwide)
  • 2007 – Cargill E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Tennessee & Minnesota)
  • 2008 – Country Cottage Restaurant E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Oklahoma)
  • 2010 – Baugher’s Apple Cider E. coli outbreak lawsuit (Maryland)
  • 2010 – Freshway Lettuce E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Nationwide)
  • 2011 – Cozy Valley Raw Milk E. coli outbreak lawsuit (Washington)
  • 2012 – Cleveland County Fair E. coli outbreak (North Carolina)
  • 2013 – Burma Superstar E. coli outbreak (California)
  • 2015 – Costco Chicken Salad E. coli outbreak (Western States)
  • 2016 – Dairy Delight Raw Milk E. coli outbreak and litigation (Michigan)
  • 2017 – Pho One E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Hawaii)
  • 2017 – Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak (Multistate)
  • 2018 – Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak (Multistate)
  • 2018 – Cargill Ground Beef E. coli outbreak (Multistate)
  • 2019 – Homegrown E. coli outbreak lawsuits (Washington)
  • 2019 – Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak (Multistate)
  • 2019 – Petting Zoo E. coli outbreak (Missouri)
  • 2020 – Leafy greens E. coli infections (Multistate)
  • 2020 – Clover sprouts E. coli infections (Multistate)

Notable E. coli Outbreak Cases and Outcomes

Jack in the Box E. coli Outbreak

One of the most notorious E. coli outbreaks in U.S. history was a 1993 outbreak that infected more than 700 people across four states, resulting in 171 hospitalizations and a total of four deaths. The investigation into the devastating E. coli outbreak began when the Washington State Department of Health became aware of an unexpectedly high incidence of HUS among children in the Seattle area. The source of the illness was traced back to hamburger patties contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 bacteria that were sold at Jack in the Box fast-food restaurants in Washington, California, Nevada and Idaho. 

The 1993 E. coli outbreak was one of the worst outbreaks of food poisoning in the U.S., and when a little girl named Brianne Kiner developed HUS after eating one of those contaminated Jack in the Box hamburgers, she became the public face of the outbreak. Kiner, nine years old at the time, was diagnosed with HUS after consuming an undercooked hamburger purchased from a Jack in the Box restaurant in Washington state. Within days of eating the tainted hamburger, Kiner was admitted to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital with a case of HUS so severe that she was not expected to survive. She was in a coma for 40 days, suffered seizures and strokes, developed diabetes, and had to have part of her inflamed intestine removed.

Kiner eventually emerged from the coma – a feat doctors called a miracle. Unfortunately, much of the trauma the young girl suffered as a result of the E. coli infection was permanent. After being released from the hospital, Kiner continued to suffer from damaged lungs, learning disabilities, and lifelong kidney problems that were expected to eventually require a transplant. The Kiner family sued Jack in the Box in 1995 for Brianne’s debilitating, long-lasting injuries and obtained a $15.6 million settlement. 

Chipotle E. coli Outbreaks

One of the most recent E. coli lawsuits was filed in October 2020, on behalf of a teenage girl who suffered a Shiga-toxin producing E. coli O157:H7 infection after eating food purchased from a Chipotle restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. The plaintiff reportedly consumed a Chipotle salad bowl containing romaine lettuce, tomato, guacamole, and salsa in September 2020, and subsequently suffered a painful and debilitating gastrointestinal illness requiring hospitalization.

This was far from the first time Chipotle had been implicated in an E. coli food poisoning case. The restaurant chain has been linked to multiple food poisoning outbreaks in recent years, including one E. coli outbreak in 2015 that sickened more than 50 people. An investigation into clusters of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli infections at that time revealed that all of the affected individuals were sickened from the same source and the common factor in all of the cases was the consumption of food from Chipotle restaurants. Chipotle was also linked to another E. coli outbreak in 2009. 

In many cases, E. coli outbreaks traced back to restaurants stem from a lack of proper food safety protocols or inadequate food safety training. In some cases, a restaurant’s repeated failure to comply with proper food safety protocols may even rise to the level of criminal conduct. In April 2020, for instance, Chipotle agreed to pay a fine of $25 million to resolve criminal charges stemming from several food poisoning outbreaks traced back to Chipotle restaurants that sickened more than 1,000 people between 2015 and 2018. 

E. coli Outbreak Settlements

Although there are several other possible sources of E. coli infections, nearly 70% of E. coli bacteria is spread through contaminated food. In fact, the CDC estimates that one in six Americans are sickened every year as a result of eating tainted food. Food producers, distributors, retailers and other entities involved in the U.S. food production chain have a legal duty to supply the public with food that is safe to consume. And in the event of an E. coli outbreak, any negligent entity or entities involved in that chain may be vulnerable to a lawsuit. For instance, if you become ill with an E. coli infection after eating contaminated food, you may be able to sue the grower, supplier, distributor, retailer, restaurant, school, caterer, hotel, convention center, nursing home, or others, depending on the specific facts of your case. 

In E. coli infection cases where animal exposure is determined to be the source of the outbreak, negligence on the part of the owner or operator of the petting zoo, fairground, farm, or other animal venue where the outbreak originated may be to blame. There have been countless E. coli outbreak lawsuits filed against restaurant chains, grocery stores, food supply companies, and operators of petting zoos, agricultural fairs, and other public animal exhibits in states across the country over the years, as well as some major E. coli infection settlements: 

    • June 2018 – Six children sickened by E. coli infections after eating chocolate mousse cake that had been prepared in a mixing bowl used to process raw meat settle a lawsuit against the commercial kitchen that prepared the cake for $2.5 million.
    • August 2017 – A jury enters a verdict of $7.55 million in the case of a 10-year-old girl who suffered HUS and permanent kidney damage after contracting an E. coli infection from cows at a Minnesota pumpkin patch and petting zoo.
    • October 2015 – A lawsuit filed by a woman who contracted E. coli, was hospitalized and subsequently developed HUS and renal failure after eating salmon at a Massachusetts restaurant, is settled for $1.13 million. 
    • March 2010 – The Big Fresno Fair in California agrees to pay more than $2 million to resolve allegations that a two-year-old girl who visited the fair’s petting zoo in 2005 was sickened with an E. coli infection. The girl developed HUS and suffered kidney failure, several strokes, and blindness in one eye, among other debilitating problems. 
    • April 2004 – BJ’s Wholesale Club and a meat supplier agree to pay $11 million to the family of a New York girl who suffered HUS after ingesting ground beef purchased from a BJ’s store in West Nyack that was found to contain E. coli
    • March 2001 – A Washington school district is ordered to pay $4.75 million in damages to 11 children who were infected with E. coli as a result of eating tainted meat served in a school lunch. 
    • May 1998 – Fresh juice company, Odwalla Inc., agrees to pay between $12 million and $15 million to resolve legal claims brought by the families of five children affected by a 1996 E. coli outbreak that sickened a total of 70 people across several states and resulted in the death of a 16-month-old child. The outbreak stemmed from the E. coli contamination of the company’s apple juice.
    • March 1995 – The Jack in the Box fast-food chain settles with the family of Brianne Kiner for $15.6 million in a lawsuit filed over permanent injuries the young girl suffered in 1993 after eating an E. coli-contaminated hamburger purchased from the restaurant. Including the tax-free annuities that will be paid to Kiner for the rest of her life, she will receive more than $40 million from the settlement over her lifetime. 

Finding the Right E. coli Outbreak Lawyer

You may think that most E. coli outbreak cases involve similar issues, but the fact is that every E. coli infection case is different. There are unique circumstances that come into play in each case, such as the source of the outbreak and the level of disability suffered by the victim or victims. If you hope to recover fair and timely compensation for the losses you and your loved ones have suffered as a result of an E. coli outbreak, you need a knowledgeable attorney on your side who practices extensively in the area of foodborne illness litigation and has experience representing clients in E. coli outbreak cases. These types of cases require a close understanding of the critical role epidemiological and microbiological evidence plays in identifying the source of an E. coli outbreak and determining who is liable for damages. In the case of a foodborne illness outbreak, this could include the grower of the tainted food, the supplier, the packager, the distributor, the retailer, or any other entity responsible for preparing or handling the contaminated food. Contact Consumer Justice Foundation as soon as possible to find out what your E. coli outbreak claim is worth. 

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By submitting this form, you confirm that you have read and agreed to Select Justice, LLC, LeadClient, Inc., or a law firm may contact you about their services at your above phone number even if it is on a National or State Do Not Call List. Calls / texts may employ automated dialing technology and prerecorded / artificial voice messages and email. I understand my consent is not a condition of any purchase.

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