Bill Marler

Food Safety Advocate & Food Poisoning Attorney

Faith Maxwell - The 1998 Finley Elementary School E. coli Outbreak

In October of 1998, 10 students at Finley Elementary School in Finley, WA were sickened infections from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. Two of the students’ infections developed into hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a potentially fatal complication of E. coli poisoning.

The bacteria spread to one non-student as well. Faith Maxwell was 2 years old at the time, and contracted an E. coli infection from a Finley student. Faith developed a serious case of HUS. She was admitted to the hospital, where she became jaundiced and began to hallucinate. Eventually her kidneys shut down and she was put on dialysis for 17 days. She was in the hospital for a total of 30 days, after which time she returned home to begin to deal with the repercussions of an illness that had severely compromised her health.  

The source of the contamination, though never confirmed, was thought to be ground taco meat served at the school cafeteria. Though the meat tested negative for E. coli O157:H7, leftover golf-ball sized chunks of it were found to have pink, undercooked centers.  

In its final outbreak report, the Washington Department of Health concluded:

As no other common school activity was identified other than eating at the school cafeteria, it is reasonable to conclude that a meal served at the school was the likely source of illness.  Cattle are the known reservoir of E. coli O157:H7.  Thus, it is likely that consuming the ground beef served in the tacos was the vehicle.

Marler Clark filed a claim against the school on behalf of all 11 victims of the outbreak. The jury agreed with the conclusion that the ground taco meat was the likely source of contamination, and awarded victims of the outbreak $4.6 million in compensation, a large share of which went to Faith, the most seriously sickened of the victims. The decision was upheld on appeal.

Marler Clark also reached an out-of-court settlement with Northern States Beef, the company that had provided the raw meat to the school district.

To read more about the Finley Elementary School E. coli outbreak and the resulting lawsuit, visit the Marler Clark Website.

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