Lawsuit filed in Lynden E. coli outbreak that sickened about 60

A water tank at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden, Wash., on Friday, March 4, 2016.
A water tank at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden, Wash., on Friday, March 4, 2016.

The families of six children sickened in the E. coli outbreak at the Milk Makers Fest last April are suing the organizer of the event, the organization behind the Lynden fairgrounds, and the Lynden School District.

A total of 60 people likely were ill, according to a report issued by the CDC in October.

The lawsuit is being filed in Whatcom County Superior Court against the Whatcom County Dairy Women, Northwest Washington Fair Association and the Lynden School District.

It argues 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such measures are meant to reduce illness in people who come into contact with farm animals.

“Why don’t you do what the law says you should do and what public health has indicated works?” said attorney Bruce Clark, who represents the families, in an interview.

He said there was an enormous wealth of information that showed this outbreak could have been prevented. “It’s a darn shame it happened,” Clark said.

Attorneys for the organizations couldn’t be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

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 April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center in Lynden. The festival had been going on for 22 years by then.

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, a life-threatening complication. No one died.

Public health officials from Whatcom County, Washington state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 alleges 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.

The CDC report in October stated that animals, including cattle, had been exhibited in the barn during previous events and that before the dairy education event, tractors, scrapers and leaf blowers were used to move manure to a bunker at the north end of the barn.

The group that used the barn before that was identified as the Whatcom Youth Fair in the lawsuit, which states that the fairgrounds had given the group the option of cleaning the barn themselves or paying a fee to have it cleaned.

“You’re basically blowing bacteria through your facility,” Clark said of using leaf blowers.

The lawsuit doesn’t list the specific amount sought by the families, saying that will be determined in court.

As detailed by the lawsuit, the children who were sickened and required medical care including hospitalization, were:

▪ Toby Hager, who was hospitalized for about 10 days at Seattle Children’s hospital. He developed hemolytic uremic syndrome and required dialysis. He still suffers from kidney problems.

Then 15, he was in the dairy barn as part of the Lynden High School Ag Tech Class to help set up the maze made up of hay bales. He wasn’t told about the risk of infection from E. coli, nor was he able to wash his hands because the only station had an empty dispenser of hand sanitizer. He also was given doughnuts to eat while inside the barn.

▪ Palmer Myers Jr., who was then a first-grader at Bernice Vossbeck Elementary School in Lynden. The boy wasn’t required to wash his hands while attending the event or when leaving the dairy barn. He was hospitalized for about two days.

▪ Halle Myers, who was exposed to E. coli by coming into contact with her older brother Palmer.

▪ Macy Neiser went to the event while a student at Bernice Vossbeck. She wasn’t required to wash her hands at the festival, when leaving the dairy barn and before she ate lunch.

▪ Selah Neiser became ill after coming into contact with her older sister, Macy.

▪ Bennett Neiser, who was sickened after contact with his older sister, Macy. He developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, was hospitalized for 12 days and required dialysis. The boy, now 1 year old, is at risk for end-stage renal disease, which would require dialysis and kidney transplant.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea