SAN FRANCISCO A girl fell into a 40-day coma after eating a bad Jack in the Box hamburger. Fifteen years later, she is still suffering ill effects. That doesn't bode well for a toddler who spent six weeks in the hospital in 2006 after eating E. coli-tainted spinach from California.
But both have lawyer William Marler in their corner and that's no small consolation.
The Seattle-based Marler is the undisputed king of food poisoning litigation. He has made good money from bad food, ringing up more than $300 million in settlements for his clients in the rapidly growing legal field of food safety.
"There is a sense of complacency in the meat industry that believes, 'Hey, we solved that problem, and we don't have to watch it so much,"' says Marler, whose career has proved otherwise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food poisoning each year afflicts some 76 million Americans; 300,000 require hospitalization and 5,000 die.
Many victims end up hiring Marler, who took his first food poisoning case in 1993, during the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest that sickened hundreds and killed four children.
"Bill was certainly at the right place at the right time entering the field of food safety litigation," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, who is in charge of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "I see him in kind of a private attorney general role."
Marler, 50, operates three dozen Web sites dedicated to food-borne illnesses. He is a tireless blogger on all things food safety and appears in front of federal and state lawmakers and regulatory boards. The license plate on his wife's Volkswagen reads ECOLI.
In all these cases, Marler has gone to trial just once, winning a $4.6 million verdict against a Washington state school district where 11 children got E. coli poisoning in the cafeteria.
Instead, he adroitly uses his sympathetic clients and the media to shame food producers into settling.
"I don't apologize for that," he says. "The publicity helps generate change."
The past year has been a busy one for Marler's six-lawyer firm, which has about 1,000 active cases in all 50 states. The clients typically pay their lawyers 25 percent to 35 percent of their settlements.
The targets of Marler's lawsuits include the Topps Meat Co., which recalled 21.7 million pounds of its hamburger patties in September the second-biggest U.S. beef recall ever then went out of business. When Cargill Inc. recalled 840,000 pounds of beef patties the following month, it brought more lawsuits by Marler.
He is also suing ConAgra Foods Inc., which recalled its Banquet chicken pot pies and Peter Pan peanut butter last year after they were found to be contaminated with salmonella.
"He's a good lawyer, and he does a fine job for his clients," says Leo Knowles, ConAgra's top lawyer. "He's passionate about food safety. At times he's a little bit overly dramatic, but I think he's genuine."
Marler continually implores the food industry to "put me out of business" by adopting more stringent safety procedures. He sent the lettuce industry a letter in 2006 in which he called on growers to stop using irrigation water contaminated with cattle and human feces, to wash fruits and vegetables more thoroughly and to provide field hands with bathrooms.
"These steps will help make our food supply safer and will enable us to keep our most vulnerable citizens kids and seniors out of harm's way," he wrote. "And, with a little luck, it will force one damn trial lawyer to find another line of work."
Marler holds degrees from Washington State University and the Seattle University School of Law. He has no formal scientific training but has immersed himself in microbiology and DNA tracing, and his firm has a scientist on staff on whom he relies.
Marler handled about 150 cases from the deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak involving California spinach, settling roughly half those cases so far. Among the clients whose cases are still unresolved is 3-year-old Ashley Armstrong of Indianapolis, whose kidneys were so damaged she will have to take medication for the rest of her life and will probably need a transplant, according to her mother.
He also has been settling dozens of cases against Taco Bell stemming from a 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened 71 people in five states.
Marler fell into food safety litigation almost by accident.
Brianne Kiner, 9, of Seattle was the first among hundreds who fell ill in the Jack in the Box outbreak. Six lawyers trekked to her bedside during the six months she spent in the hospital, hoping to represent the family. The Kiners hired Marler, a young associate at a mid-size law firm who had never worked on a food case.
"I wanted a young, hungry lion," recalls Suzanne Kiner, Brianne's mother. "He was also the only one who looked at her and teared up."
Against all odds, Brianne survived and lives in a house bought with some of the $15.6 million Marler extracted from the restaurant chain for the Kiners. But Brianne, now 25, still suffers from high blood pressure and immune system damage that makes her prone to colds and flu.
"I call him Uncle Bill," the young woman says. "I think it's incredible what he did, and I'm very thankful that he helped me."
Marler says: "When I started doing the Jack in the Box case in 1993, I never dreamed that I would be doing this in 2008. Unfortunately, it never seems to slow down."