Two people claiming they contracted cyclospora after eating at Olive Gardens in Iowa have filed lawsuits against Darden Corporation and Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. seeking damages for physical and mental injuries they say were incurred by the disease that can cause an average of 57 days of diarrhea.
The federal lawsuits come days after the FDA announced the parasite-laden salad mix was sold at Olive Garden and Red Lobster. The FDA said the salad mixes originally came from Taylor Farms de Mexico, a processor of food service salads, which supplied the mixes to Iowa and Nebraska.
Both lawsuits were filed by Minneapolis law firm PritzkerOlson, which specializes in personal injury lawsuits, including those derived from food poisoning. They allege that Darden Corporation -- which owns and operates nationwide chain restaurants that include Olive Garden and Red Lobster-- and Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. failed to comply with state and federal regulations intended to ensure the purity and safety of its food product.
Ryan Osterholm, an attorney on the case, said his office has been inundated with calls from Iowans and others who contracted the illness since cyclospora was traced to bagged lettuce last week.
"It's almost like each case gets worse than the next," Osterholm said. "People have been prisoners in their own homes for a month because they can't go anywhere because the diarrhea is so explosive and sudden and if you're not within 30 seconds of a bathroom it's a major issue."
One suit, filed by Kelly Kunc of Hiawatha, says she ate at the Olive Garden, 367 Collins Rd. NE, on June 5, and began suffering diarrhea, fatigue and cramping on June 12, at which point she sought treatment at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. The lawsuit says Kunc continued to suffer symptoms of cyclospora for the next week, which required three more trips to the emergency room. A stool sample was taken July 6, Kunc was diagnosed with a cyclospora infection July 9, and was prescribed Bactrim to treat her infection. The suit, filed Monday, said she is still suffering symptoms of cyclospora.
Kunc's lawsuit accuses Darden Corporation and Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. of negligence, claiming both companies had the duty to use ingredients that were clean and safe to eat. The suit seeks to hold the companies liable because they sold a defective product. Kunc said she has and will continue to incur medical expenses for the treatment of her injuries and she seeks to be compensated, the lawsuit states.
A Nebraska woman who ate at an Olive Garden in Sioux City, 4930 Sergeant Road, on June 10 filed a similar lawsuit through the same law firm Aug. 5. In the lawsuit, Joyce Nendza, of O'Neill, Neb., said she contracted uncontrollable diarrhea on June 17, sought medical treatment two days later and was not diagnosed until July 1. She was also prescribed Bactrim, and continues to suffer from cyclospora symptoms, according to the lawsuit.
Darden Corporation and Taylor Fresh Foods, Inc. did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday afternoon.
Last week, the Iowa Department of Public Health declined to provide information concerning the identity of a brand or businesses involved in the outbreak, citing Iowa Code that prohibits the release of such information unless it is deemed necessary for the protection of the public. At that time, the communications director for the department said that, because the food involved in the outbreak was no longer in the supply chain, there was no public health threat.
Osterholm said he doesn't feel that the Iowa Department of Public Health had enough information to determine whether or not there was still a public health threat, and, therefore, should have been transparent about which companies or brands were involved in the outbreak. He also said he thought Darden Corporation could have taken ownership of the issue earlier and faced it head on, potentially preventing more people from getting sick.
"I just think that we can do better than this," Osterholm said. "I don't think now is the time to blame anyone or anything like that, I think we need to look at how are we going to do this better going forward because there's got to be a better way. We don't know how many Iowans got sick that didn't need to, we don't know when Olive Garden knew they had an issue -- those are all kinds of questions, I think, that are going to be answered down the road a part of this litigation."
That part of Iowa Code came under fire last year, when the Iowa Department of Public Health declined to release the name of a swim facility that was traced to a norovirus outbreak. Iowa Code 139A.3 says health officials can only release the name of an infected brand or business if there is a public health risk. If there is no public health risk, they can only release that information in a generic, non-identifying way.
Patricia Quinlisk, state epidemiologist and medical director at the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the department's investigation, which began July 8, determined the infected lettuce was out of circulation because the number of patients being diagnosed had dropped off and they had good evidence that whatever was infecting people was no longer out there to eat. Because they did not have a specific risk to warn people about, they could not release the names of the entities involved, she said.
"It's not an arbitrary decision, it's legal, it's not made by any one person, but a group of people and the Attorney General's office and we are just following the law," Quinlisk said. "And, to be honest, we are pretty aggressive about going public if we believe someone's health could be protected."
The Iowa Department of Public Health is not listed on either of the lawsuits.PritzkerOlson has set up a form on the homepage of its website that allows people affected by cyclospora to fill out a contact form for a free consultation.