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Fred Pritzker: Litigating Food Borne Injury Cases

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Minneapolis, MNFred Pritzker and the lawyers at his Minneapolis firm always have a lot on their plate, so to speak.

His firm, Pritzker|Ruohonen & Associates P.A., is one of very few firms in the U.S. that can claim expertise in representing people injured by food borne illnesses, like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. It is a highly technical business, which requires experience, and a lot of scientific detail.

"It is a very small group of lawyers, I can think of one other firm. Plenty of lawyers do food borne illness cases," he says "but I don't think that many of them have the kind of experience and consistency that we have," says Pritzker.

ecoli towerOver the years, Pritzker has served as legal council in "hundreds" of cases where people have suffered serious injuries, even died from eating contaminated food.

Pritzker|Ruohonen & Associates have been involved in most of the major food borne illness outbreaks involving E. coli 0157:H7, and collected millions on behalf of food borne illness survivors, and the families of people who have died.

"E. coli cases can be very large, especially if there is a wrongful death case, or something called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is destruction of the kidneys," he says. "There have been many major outbreaks, for example, there was the lettuce outbreak involving Dole lettuce that affected a lot of the United States two years ago, and we had one of the wrongful death cases associated with that, and they are very significant claims," says Pritzker.

E. coli poisoning victims often get sick, very fast. It is among the most dangerous of all types of food borne illnesses. Many victims recover, but about a third of all E. coli infections result in kidney failure. Other complications may be blindness, seizures, paralysis or other types of debilitating or disfiguring and permanent injuries.

On July 2, 2008, the firm filed a lawsuit in Ohio, on behalf of 21-year-old Zachary Everhart from Columbus, who became ill with an E. coli O157:H7 infection after eating Kroger ground beef. The defendants in this case are Kroger Co. and Nebraska Beef, Ltd.

"He has recovered from the physical injuries to a large degree, he's still got a little bit of weakness," says Pritzker "but anyone who has gone through a near death food borne illness experience, you can imagine, is very emotionally involved and very concerned about what they eat and how it is prepared and who makes it and things like that."

In the Everhart case, Pritzker says, using a genetic fingerprint of the bacteria, it was possible to trace the illness back to Kroger Ltd. and then to Nebraska Beef Ltd. "He is a culture confirmed case," says Pritzker.

ecoli towerLAS: How did you get interested in litigating food borne illness cases?

FP: Years ago, I handled a significant food borne illness case, but not as well publicized as E. coli, and just got to know the science involved, and became more and more interested in it, and had more and more cases and developed a reputation.

LAS: Do you represent companies in food borne illness cases?

FP: What we are usually involved in is individual cases, we feel we can do a much better job helping individual clients and helping people with real problems.

LAS: What kind of verdicts result?

FP: It depends on what kind of food borne illness is involved. There are probably a dozen that we see, some of them like listeriosis (which causes fever, meningitis, miscarriage, or premature birth and is spread by eating food contaminated with Listeria bacteria) is a rare food borne illness. There are only about 2500 cases a year in the United States. Of those, 20 per cent of the people die and the rate of serious complications is significant. When there is an outbreak of listeriosis, those cases typically settle in the millions and in several instances, in the multi million-dollar range.

E. coli cases can be very large, especially if there is a wrongful death case, or something called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is destruction of the kidneys. There have been many major outbreaks. For example, there was the lettuce outbreak involving Dole lettuce that affected a lot of the United States two years ago. We had one of the wrongful death cases associated with that, and they are very significant claims.

LAS: What kind of evidence do you need to bring forward to successfully conclude these cases?

There is first, proving fault on the part of the producer or retailer.

The second is causation, and that is usually the more difficult one. By causation, I mean that this particular product was produced by a particular manufacturer and produced a particular kind of illness.

For example, in the Listeria case on the east coast I just mentioned, the outbreak strain of the Listeria was found in two different plants within 90 miles of each other in the Philadelphia area.

It is rare, and the case was fought to the end, because each company was blaming the other as the cause of it. So a lot of these cases turn on highly technical, and really scientific processes, including PFGE, which is genetic fingerprinting (of the bacteria) and things that are even more exotic, and newer and more refined.

LAS: Are these kinds of cases more common now than they were a few years ago?

FP: Food just has a more national and international reach than it ever did before. The other thing is that, you now have better detection methods. Where as before people would say, 'oh, I have some kind of food borne illness, I don't know what it is', now there is more refined testing and more co-ordination between the states and the national government, so you can identify outbreak causes that you couldn't identify before.

Fred Pritzker was born and raised in St. Paul Minnesota. He is a graduate Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Law School (1976). He has been recognized as one of the country's Top Super Lawyers and is listed among The Best Lawyers in America. The firm also does medical malpractice, product liability, ATV accidents and other types of personal injury litigation.

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