Panel weighs liability in State Fair E. coli outbreak
Posted August 2, 2011
Durham, N.C. — Nearly seven years after scores of people were sickened by an E. coli outbreak at the North Carolina State Fair, a state panel is considering whether the state owes them any compensation.
State 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.
Jason Wilkie, the owner of Crossroads Farm Petting Zoo, on Tuesday told the North Carolina Industrial Commission, which handles tort claims against the state, that no one from the state ever mentioned to him the potential for visitors to contract E. coli from his animals until after it happened.
"I think, because it hadn't happened, they thought it couldn't or wouldn't, and that arrogance upsets me," said Elizabeth Gray, whose daughter, Aedin, was among those sickened at the fair.
Aedin, then 2, was hospitalized for more than a month with kidney damage caused by the bacterial infection.
Seven years later, her mother said, her kidneys function at about 80 percent of normal levels. Aedin, who also has diabetes, may eventually need a kidney transplant, Gray said.
Ray Starling, an attorney representing the agriculture department, said fair managers did what they could based on what they knew in 2004 to protect the public.
"Simply looking back at 2004, there were different standards that we actually met and exceeded," Starling said. "There is no way to completely eliminate the risk (of infection). It is possible that today an outbreak could occur, even with the precautions we are taking under the new state law."
In 2005, state legislators passed a law named for Aedin to prevent children from walking around with the animals in petting zoos and requiring hand-washing stations at such facilities.
Before the law, signs telling people to wash their hands were posted at the fair, and hand sanitizer was available.
State veterinarian Dr. David Marshall testified that families should know the potential for E. coli infections before they enter any animal exhibit. Under cross-examination, he said that a warning sign doesn't address the severity of the danger.
Parents like Gray said hand-washing isn't enough if children have already gone through a petting zoo.
"It doesn't take a kid picking up something dirty and putting it in their mouth," she said. "It's a miniscule amount (of bacteria). It's an amount you can't see that can make you sick."
There was no word on when the Industrial Commission might rule on the lawsuit.