One month after an E. coli outbreak shut down all animal exhibits at the San Diego County Fair, three families have filed claims against the government agency that runs the annual event. They allege more could have been done to prevent the serious infections that killed one young boy and sickened nearly one dozen children.
Filed by attorneys in San Diego and Houston, the claims, which are required before anyone can sue a government agency such as the 22nd District Agricultural Association that runs the Del Mar Fairgrounds, are made on behalf of three boys.
They include 2-year-old Jedidiah Cabezuela of San Diego, who visited the fair on June 15 and died from severe complications of E. coli infection on June 24, just five days after he developed severe symptoms caused by a type of the bacteria that produces damaging shiga toxin.
Two additional claims were filed Monday, July 29, one for 6-year-old Ryan Sadrabadi of San Diego and another for 2-year-old Cristiano Lopez of Lemon Grove. The claims say both visited the fair on June 22 and subsequently came down with shiga toxin-producing E. coli infections.
Lopez’s mother, Nicole, was also infected and required medical attention, one of the claims states. While she was treated and released, her son was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, the same kidney-wasting complication that contributed to Cabezuela’s death. The condition put Cristiano Lopez in the hospital for 12 days where he underwent dialysis.
Ben Coughlan, a San Diego attorney representing the families, said the claims are about more than obtaining financial settlements.
“These are remarkable people who have just suffered a tragedy and who are constantly telling us that they never want to see this happen to another family,” Coughlan said.
A spokeswoman for the fairgrounds said Monday, July 29, the agency has received the claims. “But as an entity of the State of California, we cannot comment on pending litigation,” said Public Information Officer Annie Pierce.
It remains unclear exactly what part of the fairgrounds, if any, was responsible for a cluster of 11 confirmed E. coli infections among fair visitors. Two additional “probable” cases tested positive for the presence of shiga toxin, but subsequent testing was unable to confirm the presence of E. coli bacteria.
The results of environmental samples taken from animal exhibit areas and animals on display during the fair are not yet available. But officials have said they plan to compare those results to information gleaned from the E. coli bacteria found in each patient. That process could provide additional information on where, among hundred of animals in several different buildings, the particular strain that caused the outbreak came from.
Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of epidemiology and immunization for San Diego County, said in an email Monday, July 29, that the county hopes to learn more later this week about when the state plans to release those testing results.
Meanwhile, public health officials have said that all confirmed cases visited one animal exhibit or another at the fair, suggesting that the outbreak was centered in the seaside venue that attracts more than one million annual visitors in June and early July.
The claims filed Monday, July 29, are the first hints of a possible legal fight since the fair board and county health officers first announced the outbreak on June 28.
All three documents accuse the fair board of creating a “dangerous condition” on its property. Though fair officials have repeatedly highlighted hand-washing stands, hand-washing stations and other amenities designed to prevent infection after interacting with animals that naturally harbor some microbes potentially harmful to humans, the claims find those efforts inadequate.
Specifically, attorneys for the three families state that the fair board should have been more aggressive in warning of the “substantial risk of contracting E. coli that was possible” by walking near or through the animal exhibits, including the petting zoo area and that clothes and shoes worn in those areas “may be contaminated with dangerous pathogens.”
Claims also indicate that fair operators did not do enough to sanitize common surfaces such as fences, gates and doors and that hand-washing stations were too tall, making it difficult for children to clean up after a visit.
Ron Simon, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in E. coli cases and is working with Gomez Trial Attorneys on the claims, said Monday evening that the fair board could have done more structurally to minimize exposure. In addition to locating hand-washing stations inside exhibit halls instead of right outside, he said there should have been a brighter line between eating and petting.
“Under no circumstances should little children be eating, drinking and petting cows at the same time,” Simon said, noting that while California law does not prohibit such scenarios, laws in other states such as North Carolina and Washington, are more strict.
The claims did not list specific monetary damages sought, only stating that, if they were filed as civil lawsuits, damages would exceed $10,000 per individual.
— Paul Sisson is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune