OKLAHOMA CITY – Seven families who have been victims of a deadly E. coli outbreak in northeast Oklahoma have contacted a legal firm in Washington state.
At least 200 people became sick and one person died in connection with the outbreak, which the Oklahoma State Department of Health believes began at the Country Cottage buffet restaurant in Locust Grove.
Lawyer Bill Marler of Marler Clark in Seattle said his firm has been retained by seven families who may want to sue over the rare E. coli O111 outbreak.
Marler, who has been involved in several food-borne illness cases, said his firm is waiting for more information about the cause of the Oklahoma outbreak before it pursues legal action, but some form of litigation is "highly likely," he said.
"At this point it would not be responsible to file a lawsuit against the restaurant without waiting to see if you can figure out exactly how this thing happened, but ultimately there's got to be a meeting of the minds and looking at how to best take care of the people who got sick," he said.
Amanda Clinton, who is acting as spokeswoman for the restaurant's owners, said she expects multiple people to file claims, partly because the attorneys have been advertising their services online to the victims.
"I would not be surprised if multiple lawsuits are filed, based on past, similar cases," Clinton said Wednesday. "If I had someone in my family who was sick, I would probably file a lawsuit too."
Clinton said she was unsure if the restaurant's owners — Dale and Linda Moore — have hired an attorney.
The state Health Department is interviewing people who ate at the restaurant to see if they ate a common food, and inspectors are testing kitchen surfaces and foods at the restaurant in search of the same rare type of E. coli that's been blamed for the illnesses.
On Tuesday, the department said buffet counters and kitchen surfaces at Country Cottage were found to be clean of any harmful bacteria.
The state sampled 17 surfaces Aug. 28 and found no harmful bacteria in any of them, said state Epidemiologist Kristy Bradley.
But most people who became sick in connection with the outbreak ate at Country Cottage between Aug. 15 and Aug. 17, she said. Surfaces at the restaurant could have been cleaned before the tests were taken.
The state is expected to release bacterial samples of the restaurant's food soon, and that may the last chance to connect the E. coli outbreak to a specific food item, Bradley said.
From there, Health Department workers will analyze interviews done with people who ate at the restaurant.
That analysis will be used to come up with percentage likelihoods that certain food items can be blamed for the illnesses, she said.
Anyone who ate at Country Cottage from Aug. 15-17 is asked to call the Health Department this week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. at (800) 990-2769.