Bill Marler reflects on the case that launched his career in food safety

(This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Spring 2018.)

Bill MarlerThis year marks the 25th anniversary of a massive E. coli outbreak, which hit 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California; sickened 700 people; sent 171 to the hospital; and killed four. The anniversary is a somber but noteworthy milestone for accomplished food safety attorney Bill Marler '87.

"It's the 25th anniversary of the outbreak, but it's also the 20th anniversary of our law firm," he said. Seattle-based Marler Clark, which he co-founded with fellow Seattle University School of Law alumnus Bruce Clark '84, was the nation's first law firm to focus solely on helping victims of foodborne illnesses and grew directly from both attorneys' experience with the 1993 outbreak.

As milestones like this come and go, Marler, who recently turned 60, wonders whether it's time to retire. A few of his colleagues from the law firm's early days have already done so.

"But I really love my job," he said. "I get to make a huge difference in people's lives, people who have lost their kidneys, lost their large intestines, are brain-injured, families that are facing millions and millions and millions of dollars in medical expenses, or a husband who's never going to work again. And I get to help them. That's a reason to get up and go to work every day."

In the last two decades, Marler Clark has been involved in the aftermath of every major and minor outbreak of foodborne illness in the United States, working not only with victims but also with scientists and public health officials to make the food supply safer. Author Jeff Benedict, who chronicled the Jack in the Box story in his 2011 book, "Poisoned," wrote that "no individual has had more influence on the shape and direction of food safety policy in the U.S." than Marler.

Back in 1993, just a few years out of law school, he became the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs through an effective combination of hustle, hard work, personal connections, and media savvy.

His first E. coli client was a Tacoma family referred to him by a woman he had helped with a worker's compensation claim. He rushed from his office in downtown Seattle to his old law school hangout in Tacoma (the law school was formerly affiliated with University of Puget Sound), the Poodle Dog Restaurant, met with the family, and convinced them to hire him.

"I went from obscurity to being sort of the legal face of the outbreak. I went from having one client to five clients to 10 clients to hundreds," he said. Two years into the class-action lawsuit, when the end was finally in sight, Marler settled $25 million worth of cases in two days of mediation.

Most notably, he secured a $15.6 million settlement - the largest of its kind at the time - on behalf of Brianne Kiner, the Seattle girl who was the most severely injured victim of the outbreak, which was traced to undercooked hamburgers at 73 Jack in the Box restaurant locations. Just 9 years old, she spent several weeks in a coma, followed by a long and painful recovery. She still struggles with lifelong health effects such as infertility, asthma, and diabetes.

When the case concluded, Marler figured he would return to a general personal injury practice, possibly specializing in medical malpractice. But then another E. coli outbreak hit, again centered in Washington state. In 1996, a tainted batch of apple juice, from a juice company called Odwalla, killed one toddler and sickened 66 people. The families called Marler for help, thanks to his high profile in the Jack in the Box litigation.

"It really was at that point that I thought, 'Hmm, clearly people think I know what I'm doing,'" Marler joked. "But candidly, I had worked really hard. I knew the law and I knew the medicine really well. I started wondering if you could create an entire practice around this."

You could. Or rather, he could. Marler and Clark partnered with lawyers Denis Stearns and Andy Weisbecker to create the firm in 1998. (Both Clark and Stearns essentially switched sides, having represented Jack in the Box during the earlier litigation.) Two of the firm's most recent hires are also Seattle U Law graduates - Anthony Marangon '15 and Josh Fensterbush '17. Stearns and Drew Falkenstein '02 are of counsel at the firm.

Over the years, Marler has secured more than $600 million for victims of E. coli, salmonella, and other foodborne illnesses. While lawsuits often spur companies to make important changes - Jack in the Box developed the industry's toughest safety standards after its outbreak - Marler knows there's more to it than litigation. So he also devotes his energy and expertise to advocate for stronger food safety laws and regulations.

He petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to better regulate pathogenic E. coli and successfully advocated for the passage of the 2010-2011 FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. He has spoken to countless industry groups and journalists, established science scholarships, and written extensively on all manner of foodborne pathogens.

What motivated Bill Marler back in 1993 is what continues to motivate him today. Many people who suffer the most from foodborne illness are children, and the money he earns for them is intended to take care of them for the rest of their lives.

Marler has three daughters of his own - one is a graduate of Seattle University and two are current students. The oldest was just an infant when he took on Jack in the Box.

"When you're representing little children and you see how injured they are," he said, "it doesn't take much to look at your own kids and realize just how important your job is."