Panel: State Fair not at fault in 2004 E. coli outbreak
Posted December 2, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — A state panel ruled Friday that North Carolina State Fair officials weren't at fault for an E. coli outbreak that sickened scores of people seven years ago.
Public health officials found 108 likely cases of E. coli among people who had attended the 2004 State Fair. Investigators traced the outbreak to the Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo in Chatham County, which exhibited at the fair, and noted the illness was widespread among children who likely had direct contact with animal manure.
The families of 14 children who became seriously ill sued the state, alleging that officials with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services knew about the E. coli risk but failed to warn fairgoers.
The North Carolina Industrial Commission, which handles tort claims against the state, heard the lawsuit this summer and issued its ruling Friday.
"The greater weight of evidence shows that those responsible for conducting the 2004 North Carolina State Fair exercised reasonable care to keep its premises in a reasonably safe condition for lawful visitors," Deputy Commissioner J. Brad Donovan wrote in the 27-page ruling.
The commission found that hand sanitizer was available at the petting zoo and that the fair posted signs advising people to wash their hands before and after touching the animals. Such protocols were normal for agricultural fairs nationwide at the time, the commission said.
In 2005, state legislators passed a law to prevent children from walking around with the animals in petting zoos and requiring hand-washing stations at such facilities. Fair officials also erected double fencing to keep people out of bedding areas in the petting zoo.
"To complain in retrospect that there should have been additional washing stations or more specific language on the signage is more reflective of the value of hindsight than indicative of negligent conduct on the part of fair operators," the ruling states.
Another E. coli outbreak at this year's State Fair, which sickened 27 people, was traced to a livestock building on the fairgrounds.