November 28, 2000

C.U. Negligent in E. coli Outbreak, Attorney Says

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Although news of legal action involving the Cornell Cooperative Extension spread to the Ithaca campus yesterday, the University has yet to see documentation of the lawsuit that emerged from a New York county fair E. coli outbreak last year, and is so far declining to comment on the litigation.

William Nikas, a Washington County attorney representing four-year-old Cheyenne Bishop and her younger cousin Brooke, filed the $10 million lawsuit last Wednesday in Albany, seeking compensation for damages suffered in relation to the bacteria that had been spread. The Bishop cousins attended the Washington County Fair last year and became exposed to E. coli during the festivities.

The 150-page lawsuit can be served to the University within 120 days after it is filed, and according to Nikas, Cornell’s counsel should receive the papers he is sending within the upcoming weeks.

“Cornell is probably the weakest defendant [in relation to others named in the suit],” Nikas said. But he asserted that — no matter the magnitude of its role in the fair — the University was part of a group that could have prevented the outbreak from occurring at all.

In association with the University-sponsored extension division in Washington County, Cornell is tied to the distant subsidiary office located in eastern New York.

Nikas named the University in the lawsuit among five other defendants, including several of the fair’s organizers and Washington County. Additional litigation that will name the State of New York is pending, though according to Nikas, New York State is considered the primary defendant in the case.

While Nikas suggested that defendants in the case knew of the risks before the fair began, no action was taken toward safeguarding the people visiting the county fair, and as a result hundreds of locals and other visitors fell ill and two people died.

From across Washington County’s farmlands, community members and youth organizations travel each year to the annual fair, a century-old tradition, to celebrate its roots in local agriculture. While the county’s rural environs were on display for a week, untreated water in the fairgrounds’ water system spread E. coli, a foodborne pathogen that is also transmitted through water, and may have led to an unprecedented disease-control catastrophe, according to the State Department of Health.

Seventy-one people were hospitalized due to the outbreak. Among them, 14 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a severe complication that can lead to kidney failure. Also, 781 people were confirmed or suspected of having illnesses related to the outbreak, according to the state’s figures.

“Given the number of culture-confirmed and suspected cases, Washington County Fair illnesses are believed to represent the largest waterborne E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in United States history,” said State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello.

The lawsuit seeks to demonstrate that Cornell’s capacity as a statutory agent of New York State meant that the University was part of a group that was liable to ensure fairgoers’ safety, thus holding Cornell legally responsible for the damages suffered by the two young girls.

The suit alleges that the defendants were negligent in their failure to disinfect water that turned out to be infected with the E. coli bacteria, thereby creating health hazards at the fair.

“Even though they [the Cornell Cooperative Extension] are on the periphery of it, they have a responsibility at the very least, to inform the public of the knowledge they had,” Nikas argued.

Associate University Counsel Nelson Roth declined to comment until he receives the legal documents pertaining to the case.

The State Department of Health issued a report on March 31, following the department’s investigation into the outbreak. Conducted over six months, the investigation revealed that the outbreak may have been caused by contamination in one of the fair’s water wells. However, the Health Department could not rule out manure runoff from the nearby Youth Cattle Barn as a possible contamination source, and was unable to implicate a definitive source of the E. coli bacteria.

Nikas considered both sites dangerous to the children who were eventually exposed to E. coli. Many of the children were staying overnight in a Cornell Cooperative Extension dormitory, part of the University’s 4-H program.

“You can assume that when the 4-H kids went to the cattle barn, they were exposed to the bacteria,” Nikas said.

Then when they washed their hands and showered, Nikas said the children — including clients Cheyenne and Brooke Bishop — were at risk of exposure at several other times.

As a result of her exposure to the bacteria, Cheyenne Bishop has experienced 50 percent kidney failure from complications and was recently diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, according to Nikas.

“She’s looking at a lifetime of problems,” Nikas said.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that E. coli 0157:H7 — a common strain of the bacteria present in the Washington County outbreak — has appeared in 73,480 cases across the country, 500 of them part of a full-blown outbreak.

Slightly fewer than one percent of the cases result in fatality; in Washington County last year, a three-year-old girl and a 79-year-old man succumbed to complications from the bacteria.

“While we will never recover the two lives lost to this event, we can use the experience to improve our oversight of agricultural fairgrounds,” Novello said after releasing the report.

Currently, the state is preparing a legislative proposal that would give the health department explicit authority to regulate agricultural fairgrounds.

The department’s staff is also reviewing legal statutes on the books to determine whether other changes should be made.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch