Yes, it is sad news about the families of Lauren Herzog and Chris Martin suing Organic Pastures Dairy Co.

As I’ve written before, it’s too bad the families haven’t been able to get on with their lives and leave this situation behind. And as Kathryn describes so well in a comment following yesterday’s post, a court suit is a source of negative energy in a family for a long time, since court suits can drag on for years.

Yet I should also say that when things seemed to be getting out of hand in discussions about the case on this blog at various points over the last year, several people, myself included, advised Mary McGonigle-Martin and Melissa Herzog to end their online accusations and consider legal remedies if they really thought they had a case. (If you’re new to this blog, I suggest doing some searches under "McGonigle-Martin" and "Herzog".)

With all that being said, a few things puzzle me at this point. First, in all the discussion on this blog, and there has been a lot, I never once recall reading about the medical expenses. I understood the Martins to have been covered by insurance, and that they were investigating with their HMO its procedures in Chris’ illness. I assumed the Herzog family similarly had insurance. (Mary tells me they’ve been advised by their lawyer not to comment any further.)

If there were outstanding medical bills, and no one seems to be suggesting there are, wouldn’t the insurers be the appropriate ones to file suit? Bill Marler, the “food poisoning” lawyer whom I assume is handling the case (he doesn’t quite say so in his blog posting about the court suit) says Lauren “was discharged with over $250,000 in medical bills” and Chris “was discharged…with over $450,000 in medical bills.” Yeah, every patient leaves the hospital with bills, and in most cases, insurance companies pay them off. Related, the suit doesn’t appear to seek specific damages. (I haven’t yet been able to obtain a copy of the suit.)

Another thing that’s curious is the “government report” about the case, which is a written description from California’s Department of Health Services, done a year ago nearly to the day. It is addressed to “file” and never seems to have been publicly disseminated. You would think that the California Department of Health, which has been an ardent opponent of raw milk, would have wanted to trumpet its findings.

The memo itself never identifies Organic Pastures by name, referring only to “Brand A dairy.” And, as others have mentioned, it seems especially strange that the California Department of Food and Agriculture would have settled with Organic Pastures via a cash payment over the shutdown of the dairy in September 2006 based on the Health Services’ conclusion that “the source of infection for these children was likely raw milk products produced by the dairy.” Or was there some doubt somewhere in the bureaucracy about the veracity of Health Services’ conclusion?

There are a few other curiosities, one being the Health Services’ depiction of the six children’s illnesses: “Four patients drank raw milk regularly. One patient drank raw milk only once; he was served raw chocolate colostrum as a snack when visiting a friend. One patient denied drinking Brand A raw milk but his family routinely consumed Brand A raw milk.”

So, if I’ve got this right, five of the six ill children were confirmed drinkers of raw milk during the suspected danger period. And one of those five—Chris Martin—was never diagnosed with E.coli 0157:H7. So really, we have four confirmed raw milk drinkers who had E.coli 0157:H7—one-third of the children are already in doubt about what they consumed or what illness they had. Plus, the report suggests that a boy was the only one who drank raw milk only once, yet many times on this blog, Melissa Herzog said Lauren was served raw milk once while visiting her father (they were separated), and that otherwise she didn’t drink raw milk. So now we have questions about a third illness, or half the children.

If this thing isn’t settled in advance of going to trial, I can see where the lawyers are going to have a field day trying to figure out who did what to whom, and when. And remember, the E.coli 0157:H7 found in the five children was never picked up in all the many tests of animals and milk at Organic Pastures.

I think the thing that has bothered me most about this whole matter, aside from the contradictory evidence and the lack of a “smoking gun,” has been the fact that it feeds the long-time perception of raw milk as more dangerous than other foods, which we know from U.S. Centers for Disease Control data to be untrue. Toward what end?