E. Coli Victims Sue Oklahoma RestaurantOct 2, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Although the exact origin of the historic E. coli outbreak linked to the Country Cottage Restaurant in Oklahoma remains unknown, a civil lawsuit has been filed against the Locust Grove restaurant and its owners, said the Pryor Daily Times.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health’s final report pointed to the ongoing spread of food borne bacteria throughout the restaurant, as opposed to one specific food or incident, as sparking the outbreak, according to a prior Associated Press (AP) report. The outbreak of the rare E. coli O111, is believed to be the largest in the history of that strain. One man died, 314 people fell ill, and scores were hospitalized, including a number of children requiring dialysis.
The civil lawsuit filed this week in District Court in Mayes County is seeking damages in excess of $3 million “in addition to, but not limited to, all past medicals,” estimated at about $2 million, quoted the Pryor Daily Times. Twelve families are represented in the joint lawsuit that states that the “food and drink that the plaintiffs purchased from the County Cottage restaurant was contaminated with E. coli 0111:NM and was therefore, as a result, defective and unreasonably dangerous,” quoted the Pryor Daily Times.
Quoting the Oklahoma Department of Health Summary Report about the debacle and following interviews of Country Cottage’s owners, “it was learned that a private well on the premises had been accessed and used to supply water for the restaurant for approximately two hours on Aug. 10, when a sudden interruption of the municipal water system occurred,” reported the Pryor Daily Times.
During an August 23 surprise inspection, nine health code violations were identified. Despite this, Country Cottage remained open on August 24, the day the one related death occurred. Also, internal documents revealed that State Health Department officials allowed Country Cottage to remain open temporarily—despite confirming six of eight initial food poisoning victims had eaten its food. The Health Department first publicly cited Country Cottage as a possible link in the outbreak on August 25, saying in a release that “a large number of persons who became ill” had eaten there. The investigation ultimately revealed that every person who became ill in the outbreak had eaten food prepared by Country Cottage.
According to a number of news outlets, the investigation involved about 6,000 man-hours and 1,823 interviews at a cost of about $250,000. Also according to various media, State Attorney General Drew Edmondson accused Health Department officials of “botching” the inquiry, adding that he believes “excess chicken litter spread by poultry operations is responsible for contaminating wells and causing the outbreak,” said NewsOK earlier this year.
Country Cottage, a buffet-style restaurant in business for over 22 years, has had 88 health department violations since 2004 that range from improper food storage to improper food temperatures. Cross contamination violations occurred in 2005 and 2006, according to health department reports. This type of contamination can take place when, for instance, a meat product is placed near a product such as eggs. Cross contamination was originally suspected; however, an Oklahoma State Department of Health official said that because investigators were never able to identify a specific food source, they believe a staff member who handled many foods at the restaurant might have been infected and spread the contamination.