tampabay.com

E. coli lawsuits against festival are settled

Both cases focused on a petting zoo at the Strawberry Festival.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published May 18, 2007


TAMPA -- A 7-year-old Tampa girl and a 53-year-old St. Petersburg woman who were sickened from an E. coli outbreak at a petting zoo two years ago have settled their lawsuits against the Florida Strawberry Festival.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in E. coli cases and represented both parties, would not disclose the amount of the confidential settlements. He did say, however, that it fell within the range of typical settlements and jury verdicts for similar cases.

That range, Marler said, is in the millions.

"It's a hard lesson for petting zoos and county fairs to learn," Marler said Thursday, "but they really need to do more than what they have been doing."

For the first time since the 2005 outbreak, details are being released about two of the stricken and how they contracted the potentially fatal bacteria.

They suffered from diarrhea and tested positive for either a specific strain of E. coli or hemolytic uremic syndrome, a fairly infrequent and life-threatening complication of E. coli infections.

Both got very sick

The girl, Jenna Gauci, who was 5 at the time, had bouts of diarrhea one weekend in March 2005. Her condition quickly worsened, her stool turned bloody and she was admitted to a hospital, where she underwent more than a week of dialysis. She also had other complications and was near death, according to the lawsuit.

Jenna had contracted the strain of E. coli from her best friend, someone she played with at Citrus Park Christian School.

The friend had been petting animals at the Strawberry Festival and also fell ill but displayed milder symptoms.

While Jenna was in the hospital, the family received an invitation to the friend's birthday party. Jenna's mother, Natalie, called the other girl's mother to inform her that they couldn't come to the party.

The birthday girl's mother said her daughter had become ill days after petting goats at the Strawberry Festival. But they hadn't found out that the illness was caused by E. coli until later, so the girl still had been attending school.

It was at that moment that Jenna's mother made the connection.

The Pinellas County woman who fell ill, Diana Walters, had taken her nephew inside the festival's exhibit to pet and feed the animals during an outing March 12, the lawsuit said. Five days later, she began having gastrointestinal pain and nausea. She was hospitalized for 16 days and underwent blood transfusions.

The families declined to comment. Marler said both the girl and the woman have recovered, but the illness has left them more vulnerable to other ailments.

"All the parties felt it was in their best interest to resolve these cases rather than continue with litigation," said Scott Jackman, the attorney for the Florida Strawberry Festival.

Other suits pending

Lawsuits against the Florida State Fair and the Central Florida Fair in Orlando involving dozens of others who got sick are still pending, Marler said.

The single connection among the three fairs was a petting zoo run by Plant City's Ag-Venture Farm Shows that had infected livestock. Ag-Venture had an insurance policy limit of $1-million, which was divided among all of the people who filed claims, Marler said.

The owner of Ag-Venture, Tom Umiker, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Jerry Setchel, said Umiker has lost everything -- his business and his animals. About 16 plaintiffs have settled with Ag-Venture, Setchel said, noting that "the matters were amicably resolved."

Marler, who has worked on thousands of E. coli cases, said his goal is not to shut down petting zoos.

"I understand the '50s, apple pie kind of feelings," he said. "However, the fact of the matter is, these petting zoos and county fairs have been a real big source of illnesses for a number of years. ... This bug is out there, and it's something you have to worry about now. You have to protect the people who are coming to enjoy them."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5312.