Fund For Health Care In E. Coli Settlement

As part of its settlement with hundreds of victims sickened during last January's E. coli outbreak, the parent company of Jack in the Box restaurants will put $450,000 into a medical trust fund and will monitor the health of those made ill by the tainted hamburger.

The unique fund and medical monitoring program, announced today, will pay for exams and other expenses should those who became ill during the outbreak develop medical problems later.

"The consistent concern and fear expressed by victims, especially parents of children, is the possibility of some future complications," said Christopher Pence, an attorney who represents more than 400 victims and their families in a class-action lawsuit against the hamburger chain. "These programs will not only protect our clients but also will provide real peace of mind, especially for parents of the children who were infected. These are people who feared for their lives."

The settlement with Foodmaker Inc., owner of the Jack in the Box chain, came after months of negotiations, said Pence. He credited the company for its willingness to settle the lawsuit and pledge money for follow-up medical care.

Individuals in the class-action suit are also pursuing damages from Foodmaker. Ten claims from five different families have been settled, Pence said, and others are in mediation.

The company had earlier agreed to pay medical costs for those who either ate contaminated hamburgers at a Jack in the Box restaurant or became infected by someone who did.

Three children died and about 500 people became sick during January's E. coli 0157:H7 epidemic. It was the worst outbreak ever in North America.

The illness, which hits the young and the old the hardest, was traced to contaminated and undercooked hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants throughout the state.

Pence's law firm, Pence & Dawson, teamed up with another firm, Keller Rohrback, to press the class-action suit, particularly geared for those who were not made seriously ill by the tainted meat. Of the estimated 400 in the suit, 250 contracted the E. coli infection, Pence said. Few of those went on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, HUS, the potentially fatal complication that can involve acute kidney failure. None of those in Pence's lawsuit died.

The families of two of the three children who died from the infection, Riley Detwiler and Celina Shribbs, earlier reached settlements with Foodmaker in cases unrelated to the class-action suit.

An Issaquah man whose 3-year-old son became ill after eating a cheeseburger at a Tukwila Jack in the Box said the medical trust fund established in the settlement with Foodmaker will be a comfort should his son have any relapses from the infection.

Even though doctors said future complications were unlikely, "I see yellow flags," said the man, who asked that his name not be used. "It was our worst nightmare. His whole system shut down."

The boy was sick for more than a month, the father said, and at one time asked his parents, "Am I going to die?"

In addition to the medical trust fund set aside for all the victims in the lawsuit, Foodmaker agreed to give the boy $17,500 as compensation for his illness, said Pence.

In another case, he said, an 18-month-old who became ill was awarded $15,000 and the child's mother another $8,000.

"I feel really good about this because it was only through the class action this was ever possible," Pence said of the trust fund and the individual settlements. "One lawyer with one case, or 10 cases, never could put programs together for modest claims like these."

The $450,000 will be used to pay for periodic medical tests and treatment for the victims over 10 years, with the possibility for an extension.

"This bacteria was only identified in 1982," Pence said, "and they're still learning a lot about it." While the potential complications of HUS are fairly well-known, he said, much less is known about the medical prognosis for those infected with E. coli who don't develop HUS.

Under terms of the agreement, a panel of medical experts would determine whether any future illnesses were related to the E. coli infection.

The agreement also says that any money remaining after the trust expires will be given to a charity chosen by Foodmaker.