A Chat With Foodborne Illness Injury Lawyer Bill Marler

Bill Marler

In the June issue of NWLawyer, we spoke with attorney Bill Marler, widely recognized as an expert in plaintiffs’ litigation for foodborne illness injuries and, perhaps most famously, the attorney who represented children injured during the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.

That interview resulted in far too much to fit in a print magazine. NWSidebar has published some of what was left on the cutting-room floor: Everything from Marler’s unique relationship with Jack in the Box to his teenage years when he ran away from home to become a migrant farmworker and later ran for city council as a goof—except he won.

NWS: The trend is usually you become a lawyer, and then you go into politics, and you did the exact opposite. What lessons did you learn from your time on the Pullman City Council?

MARLER: The great thing about being 62 is I can look back on life a little bit now and pontificate about seminal moments in my life—but I have the two young seminal moments. One, when I ran away from home when I was 16 to become a migrant farmworker and had to live on my own trying to make my way….

NWS: So you just took off?

MARLER: I just was anxious. I wanted to try something different … but a friend of a friend said you can make money picking apples in Eastern Washington so I went, “I’ll go do that.” It was a very interesting experience. That certainly was a seminal moment in my perception of how I was going to live my life and my thoughts about people—rich and poor.

Then I ran for City Council in Pullman and it literally was as a joke. The student body president [of the college Marler attended] at the time happened to live in the same apartment complex that I lived in and he got three of us to file for the Pullman City Council, essentially just to stick it to the city that they didn’t pay attention to the students. I got interviewed by the media and I started going door to door talking to people; I really got into it. I started figuring out what the issues were, so I didn’t look like an idiot.…

Between the end of September, when the students came back, and the November election, we registered about 1,000 students to vote and they voted in the election and I won by 53 votes. And all of a sudden, here I was essentially a sophomore in college, just turned 19, and I was serving a four-year city council [term].

I look back at that point in time and it changed my entire life…. People expected more out of me because I was an elected official. All of a sudden I became an adult, at a very young age, and had to get serious.

NWS: That time as a teenage city councilmember, do you think it informed how you practice law at all?

MARLER: Absolutely. I practice law more like a politician trying to get a bill passed and less like a litigator.…

That’s part of how I do things in my practice. I’m super open about how I’m going to do something; to be really transparent. Tell people exactly how I am going to approach stuff. And I have to admit I do expect people to respond in that way, but just like in politics, people don’t necessarily respond the way you hope they would, or expect that they should. I continue to act exactly the same way I did as a city councilmember, of being open and learning and trying to be collaborative. I’m always continually somewhat disappointed that things don’t work out exactly the way I planned. But you still have to keep pushing it.

NWS: If you ever listen to Radiolab [it was actually This American Life]… I think there was an episode on Jack in the Box. I had no idea the mascot “Jack” resulted as a response to that outbreak. Is it strange to see that this mascot has lived on, to see that result from these cases?

MARLER: I obviously, at first blush, would have an odd relationship with Jack in the Box, but one of my best friends was the vice president of Jack in the Box, became [a friend] after the outbreak, a guy named Dave Theno. He and I and our wives became close, and Dave unfortunately died. But I gave his eulogy in San Diego with a gigantic room of Jack in the Box people. You had to recognize the fact that, it was an odd relationship, but I think that said so much about what Dave was trying to accomplish and really what Jack in the Box was trying to accomplish.

Everything that Jack in the Box learned about testing and cooking and handling, they didn’t keep it to themselves, they shared it with everybody. They shared it with all fast food outlets, everybody. They set up processes that changed the way the fast food industry [handled food].

[Marler explains how the type of E. coli that led to the more notable recent public health outbreaks was likely an unforeseen consequence of changes in modern farming practices, specifically when many farms switched their cattle feed from grass, which cows eat naturally, to grain.]

MARLER: That’s the one thing about humans I’m always fascinated about: Our inability to look around a corner…. I always find it just amazing, how we have to be hit in the head with a 2-by-4 three or four times before you go “Oh, I get it.”