Lawsuit Filed Over E. Coli Outbreak in Locust Grove, Okla.

April 1, 2009

A couple filed a lawsuit against a popular Locust Grove, Okla., eatery, claiming an E. coli outbreak there last summer caused one of them to become seriously ill.

Donna and Jim Crafton claim Donna ate at the Country Cottage restaurant on Aug. 25 and suffered severe physical harm and extreme mental suffering.

It also states that Donna needed extensive medical treatment as a result of eating there. The Craftons are seeking actual and punitive damages of more than $10,000.

“Mrs. Crafton spent over 20 days in a couple of hospitals in Tulsa and has incurred a lot of medical bills,” said Tulsa attorney Frank Frasier. “This has not been easy and without pain for she and her family.

“The food she ate was not fit for human consumption, and the law in this state is that if you’re serving food tainted with a dangerous bacteria, you’re responsible,” he said.

An attorney for the owners of the restaurant did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The suit, filed in Mayes County District Court, is believed to be the first against the restaurant connected with the August outbreak, which killed one man and sickened more than 300 adults and children in the blue-collar community of 1,500.

The unsolved outbreak became the largest in the nation’s history for the rare E. coli O111 strain.

The state’s probe into what caused the mass illness picked up steam in recent weeks, after Attorney General Drew Edmondson suggested that contamination from nearby poultry operations could have been the source – an allegation the industry repeatedly denies.

His announcement prompted state agencies to begin testing private wells near the town for free.

Out of nearly 110 tested, 20 wells turned up positive for E. coli bacteria, typically associated with human or animal waste.

A final analysis by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not find the rare O111 strain, but did identify three other types of E. coli bacteria: O141, O179, and O113 – all capable of causing illness in humans.

Last November, state health officials and the restaurant signed an agreement to reopen the Cottage, even though the source of the contamination was never identified.

The agreement detailed several conditions that needed to be met before it could reopen, including disconnecting a private well on the property, allowing for repeat environmental testing in the restaurant upon request and implementing a monitoring system for employee hand-washing, among others.

The Country Cottage, a buffet-style eatery off the main drag that drew hundreds of customers each week and doubled as an economic engine for Locust Grove, employed about 60 people.

The first confirmed cases of E. coli O111 began Aug. 15, and most of the cases occurred within that week. The last reported illness came on Sept. 6.

During the monthlong scare last summer, restaurants in the small town were nearly empty, and residents made runs on bottled water as rumors spread that the problem was really in the town’s water supply.

The health department is completing its report on the Country Cottage investigation.

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