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Lynden E. coli outbreak sickened school children. Here's how the lawsuit was resolved.

Health officials explain how to fight the spread of E. coli at the Lynden fair

Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for Whatcom County Health Department, explains to Northwest Washington Fair volunteers and staff on Aug. 12, 2015, how germs can make you sick and how to protect yourself by washing your hands.
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Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for Whatcom County Health Department, explains to Northwest Washington Fair volunteers and staff on Aug. 12, 2015, how germs can make you sick and how to protect yourself by washing your hands.

A settlement of nearly $2 million has been reached in a 2016 lawsuit over an E. coli outbreak traced back to the Lynden Fairgrounds that sickened about 60 people.

The families of six children who became ill as a result of the outbreak at the Milk Makers Fest in April 2015 sued the Whatcom County Dairy Women, Northwest Washington Fair Association and the Lynden School District.

Whatcom County Dairy Women put on the event. The Northwest Washington Fair Association operated the fairgrounds. Some of the children were students in the Lynden School District.

"I’m glad these defendants chose to take care of the kids who were injured," said Bruce Clark, the attorney representing the children and their families.

He declined further comment.

Clark is with Seattle-based Marler Clark, a law firm that specializes in foodborne illness including the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the Northwest.

The lawsuit alleged that the organizations failed to protect children from being infected by Shiga toxin-producing E. coli 0157: H7, the strain that sickened them, because they didn’t follow established public health rules and guidelines, including from the National Association of State Public Heath Veterinarians and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such measures are meant to reduce illness in people who come into contact with farm animals.

The parties had reached an out-of-court settlement, but appeared Tuesday before Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis for her approval.

Clark also asked the judge to seal the settlement agreement and other court records related to the lawsuit.

In his court filing, Clark cited the need for privacy because the case included information about the children's past and current medical conditions, as well as the future prognosis of one child. He also asked that the settlement amount remain confidential.

"Petitioners do not wish for their children's financial circumstances to be a matter of public record," Clark wrote in his motion to have the file sealed.

On Tuesday, Montoya-Lewis approved the settlement and request to seal the court documents.

As a result, the total settlement figures weren't disclosed.

In court on Tuesday, attorney Bret Simmons, who was serving as the children's guardian ad litem, indicated that most of the settlements were fairly small. Most of the children had a few weeks of medical treatment, except for one, he told the judge.

That child, who was an infant when sickened by E. coli, developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening complication. He required "significant medical treatment," Clark wrote in his court filing.

The settlement for him was nearly $2 million, Simmons said to the judge on Tuesday.

The Northwest Washington Fair Association, which operates the fairgrounds, didn't admit to wrongdoing or negligence in connection with the outbreak, according to its statement about the settlement.

“This is a positive step forward for us and all of those affected by the unfortunate events of the 2015 Milk Makers Fest," said Jim Baron, manager of the Northwest Washington Fair Association.

"We look forward to putting this litigation behind us and focusing on our mission of serving the community with wholesome education, experiences and enjoyment, which we’ve been known to do for more than a century," Baron said. "We are deeply committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all who visit our fairgrounds and are pleased to welcome families to the many activities we have in store for this year and beyond."

The background

About 1,325 Whatcom County first-grade students, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, from all school districts in Whatcom County went to the Milk Makers Fest on April 21-23 of 2015 at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden.

Organized by the Whatcom County Dairy Women, the now-defunct festival had been going on for 22 years as of 2015.

The event was designed to introduce young students to farming. It also gave them a chance to pet farm animals, including small horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens and a calf. There was a hay maze and scavenger hunt as well.

People who helped set up and take down the event — on April 20 and 24 — also were among those who were sickened. Some of those who attended the event later spread it to others who hadn’t, including family members.

Of the total number of people who were ill, 25 were confirmed through tests and 35 were probable. Eleven were hospitalized. Six developed hemolytic uremic syndrome. No one died.

Public health officials from Whatcom County, Washington state and the CDC investigated the outbreak, which was traced to the north end of the dairy barn where the Milk Makers Fest was held.

E. coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most are harmless, but some cause illness. The main sources for E. coli are contaminated food, water and surfaces, along with contact with livestock.

People become infected when they swallow minute amounts of feces, usually not visible to the naked eye.

It doesn’t take much E. coli to cause illness, which causes severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting.

The lawsuit alleged that the dairy barn wasn’t adequately cleaned prior to the event to reduce the risk of E. coli contamination and that there weren’t enough hand-washing facilities.

The organizations also didn’t make sure all children washed their hands with soap and water after leaving the dairy barn and before eating or drinking, nor were they told to keep their fingers out of their mouths until they washed their hands, according to the lawsuit.

As a result of the E. coli outbreak, organizers of the Northwest Washington Fair placed greater emphasis on hand-washing during the annual fair, which is in August.

Simmons also represented the Bellingham and Ferndale school districts in lawsuits that were filed against them over the outbreak. He said settlements were reached in those cases last year.

Attorneys for the Whatcom County Dairy Women and the Lynden School District couldn't be reached for comment.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea
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