Families sue Cleveland County fair over E.coli illnesses

abethea@charlotteobserver.comNovember 23, 2012 

The families of two children who became ill in the E.coli outbreak tied to the Cleveland County Fair have sued the event’s operator.

The civil complaint was filed this week in Gaston County on behalf of 5-year-old Hannah Roberts of Gastonia and 18-month-old Isaac Dover of Cherokee County, S.C. The children, along with their parents, are named as plaintiffs.

The suit states that both of the children attended the Cleveland Fair on Oct. 4 and became ill a few days later. Each was diagnosed with E.coli, and also developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause kidney failure.

N.C. health officials have said a petting zoo at the fair was the focal point of the E.coli outbreak, and that rainy weather helped to spread the bacteria to areas away from the animals.

In all, 106 people became sick, including a 2-year-old from Gastonia who died.

In the suit, the families claim the operator of the Cleveland fair created an environment that was susceptible to widespread E.coli contamination, and knew or should have known the risks associated with animal exhibits. It also alleges, among other things, that the fair failed to take reasonable measures to combat the spread of animal waste outside of the petting zoo areas.

The families are seeking damages in excess of $10,000.

A lawyer for the Cleveland County Fair Inc. said Wednesday the nonprofit had not yet been served with the complaint, but typically does not comment on specific legal proceedings.

“After we have received and reviewed the complaint, we will be filing an appropriate response with the court,” said attorney O. Max Gardner III.

The fair’s director, Calvin Hastings, has previously said the organizers tried to prevent any problems with E.coli before the fair started. Steps included having more hand-washing stations than state law requires, he said, and posting signs to remind people to wash their hands.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said the civil suit was not meant to punish the fair, or hold its representatives criminally negligent.

“It’s about getting these children and these families what they need so they can get back to their rightful position,” Bumgardner said.

The suit states that Hannah and Isaac both suffered permanent kidney damage and other extensive personal injuries, as well as emotional distress. Their parents, the suit states, have incurred substantial medical expenses and also endured emotional distress.

Earlier this month, the state said it would set up a committee to look for new ways to prevent E.coli outbreaks. The committee would include both local and state health officials.

Hastings said at the time there would be no further animal exhibits at the fair until the study is complete and any recommended changes are put in place.

On Wednesday, Gardner reiterated the fair’s intention to work with the state study.

“Of course, everyone associated with the Cleveland County Fair continues to keep all individuals and their families impacted in our thoughts and prayers,” Gardner said. “The fair continues to work with all of the regulatory authorities involved and looks forward to working with all health care partners on the new committee and working group that Commissioner of Agriculture Troxler has recommended as a result of the recent investigation by his agency.” Staff writer Joe DePriest and News researcher Maria David contributed.

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