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Judge signs E. coli payout

Judge signs E. coli payout

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mccord@poststar.com

BALLSTON SPA - Four years after the worst E. coli outbreak in state history, a judge has approved a formula to split up $4 million between 122 people who were poisoned by contaminated water at the Washington County Fair in 1999.

State Court of Claims Judge Edward Sheridan agreed on Thursday to approve the settlement distribution formula, which was proposed two weeks ago by lawyers representing victims of the E. coli outbreak.

In 1999, more than 2,800 people were sickened, including 71 who required hospitalization, after fairgoers were exposed to the deadly 157:H7 strain of the bacteria.

A 3-year-old child from Clifton Park and a 79-year-old man from Gansevoort also died several days later.

State officials determined the outbreak originated in a sewage pit at a fair dormitory, where dozens of 4-H members were housed. Officials theorized that wastewater from the pit seeped into a new drinking water well located 36 feet away. The water was then used by food vendors at the fair.

While thousands were affected, only 134 people sued.

Donald Boyajian, lead counsel for the class action lawsuit, said Sheridan on Thursday ruled some of the plaintiffs don't qualify for monetary awards because they couldn't prove they were infected with the E. coli bacteria.

For the remaining 122 plaintiffs, they will receive payments ranging from $3,500 to $250,000 depending on the severity of their poisoning.

The formula approved Thursday by Sheridan, acting as a state Supreme Court justice in Saratoga County, sets seven ranges of compensation.

The largest awards will go to children whose kidneys were debilitated by the poisoning. They will receive $150,000 to $250,000. Adults with afflicted kidneys will receive between $100,000 and $200,000 each.

Children without kidney damage, but who were admitted to the hospital for treatment, will receive between $12,500 and $16,500, with an additional $1,500 stipend for each day hospitalized. Adults in the same category will receive $9,500 to $13,500 plus the same stipend.

Children treated for verified E. coli exposure but who were not hospitalized will receive payments ranging from $7,500 to $12,000. Adults in the same category will receive from $3,500 to $7,500.

Families of the two people who died will receive from $75,000 to $125,000 each.

About one-third of the award payout is expected to go to attorney fees.

E. Stewart Jones, a Troy-based lawyer representing 27 plaintiffs in the case, said he hopes payments for plaintiffs will be ready in 30 days or so.

While Sheridan approved the formula and range of payments Thursday, Jones said lawyers must now sit down with their clients and determine what each person will specifically receive.

All the lawyers will then confer to ensure they agree on the settlement distribution, Jones said. Finally, Sheridan will have to approve the specific settlements, Jones said.

Boyajian warned, however, that it could take until early January for everything to be settled.

"Obviously, people are anxious to get this over with," he said. "But, realistically, if it's not by the end of the year, it will be early next year."

The $4 million in the settlement pool will be funded primarily by the insurance companies for the Washington County Fair Inc. The fair's water engineer, Cornell Cooperative Extension and various fair vendors are also expected to contribute.

Claire Pospisil, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, noted that soon after the 1999 incident, all fairgrounds in the state operating without a public water system were ordered to monitor water more closely and disinfect their systems.

Health Department officials then followed up with all such fairgrounds to inspect their systems and ensure another outbreak didn't occur, Pospisil said.

"I believe every fairground now has a public water system," Pospisil said.

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