12/10/06 — City resident will sue over E. coli scallions

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City resident will sue over E. coli scallions

By Lee Williams
Published in News on December 10, 2006 2:00 AM

Stephen Minnis of Goldsboro craved the taste for Taco Bell so much that he visited the same store twice in one week.

But after falling gravely ill within days of dining at the new restaurant in eastern Pennsylvania, Minnis, a 27-year-old former Seymour Johnson Air Force Base airman, doubts he will ever eat there again.

Minnis, who was stationed at Seymour Johnson after a four-year tour, was discharged Nov. 20. Five days later, he went to a Taco Bell on East Pennsylvania Avenue in Gilbertsville, a small town about 40 miles outside of Philadelphia.

Minnis ate a chicken chalupa and a chicken quesadilla. Three days later, he became violently ill, he said when reached by telephone.

"I got to a point where I thought I was going to die," Minnis said. "I was in the bathroom for three hours. I was so sick I couldn't even call out for my wife and ask her to call an ambulance."

During a trip to the Pottstown Memorial Hospital emergency room, Minnis learned the root of his illness allegedly came from something he ate.

"I ate a chicken chalupa and a chicken quesadilla chocked full of E. coli," Minnis said.

Further inquiry revealed his illness was linked to the green onions that were used in his food at Taco Bell, Minnis said. An E. coli outbreak can affect patients in three to nine days, health officials said.

But the former vehicle mechanic discovered he wasn't the only one who got sick from the alleged E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell, he said.

Minnis filed a lawsuit in federal court in Philadelphia against Yum! Brands Inc., Taco Bell's parent company, and Boskovich Farms Inc., the grower of the suspect green onions.

Attorney Drew Falkenstein of the Seattle, Wash.-based law firm Marler Clark, is seeking damages against the companies on behalf of his client. While Falkenstein hasn't put a dollar figure on the damages he is seeking, he says all he's asking for is what's fair.

"I'm seeking enough to adequately and fairly compensate him for what he's been through," Falkenstein said.

In the civil suit filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Minnis' attorneys allege E. coli outbreaks are sweeping the nation and the defendants are largely responsible.

"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to date 58 cases of E. coli illnesses have been reported that are associated with green onions manufactured and sold by the defendants," the complaint stated.

E. coli outbreaks were reported in six states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina and Utah. Many other cases of E. coli infection are under investigation by state public health officials, the complaint further stated.

In a press release, Marler Clark officials allege the defendants have been plagued by E. coli outbreaks in the past.

"Both defendants named in the lawsuit have a connection to prior green onion-related outbreaks. In 2000, dozens of people became ill with hepatitis A after eating contaminated green onions at Taco Bells locations in Florida, Kentucky and Nevada, and in 2003, over 600 people became ill with hepatitis A and four people died after eating contaminated green onions at a Chi-Chi's restaurant in western Pennsylvania," said William Marler, managing partner.

Marler said the lawsuit is not only about winning damages, but also to bring about change in the fresh produce industry.

"With over 300 people becoming ill with E. coli in the past three months, it's time growers and processors cleaned up their act and prevented contaminated produce from reaching consumers," Marler said.

Meanwhile, Minnis is working to recover from the losses he suffered while he was ill. He hopes the time he missed job hunting and at school won't derail his plans as a future mortgage broker.

"I had a bunch of job interviews that I missed because of this," he said.

Minnis is working to earn his degree in business management from Mount Olive College. He said he became ill right at the time he was working to complete his final term paper, and he doesn't know how it will turn out.

"I was trying to work on the term paper, and I wasn't able to do my best," he said.