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December 2000

Rancho Nicasio Illnesses:
Class Action Lawsuit Moving Toward Court

By Louis Nuyens

A Class Action suit against the County of Marin over illnesses experienced by customers of Rancho Nicasio restaurant may now advance to Civil court.

Having completed the requirement to submit three claims to County Counsel, San Rafael attorney Steve Schoonover is preparing to file the Class Action suit on behalf of numerous claimants. The claims filed directly with the County were predictably rebuffed by County Counsel Patrick Faulkner, and Supervisor Steve Kinsey called them "not worth the paper they are printed on."

Over twenty people became ill after dining at Rancho Nicasio last February. While no "absolute" determination was made, County staff reports on the incident indicate wide belief by public health officials that a seriously contaminated well water system was the cause of the illness outbreak. Problems include a poorly managed, poorly regulated drinking water supply, in an agricultural area, and with possibly failing septic systems nearby.

An as yet undisclosed number of plaintiffs have joined initial claimant Jerelyn Jacobson. The lawsuit includes the County of Marin, based on the belief that the Environmental Health Department did not adequately protect the public health, that it knew of water quality and health concerns with the restaurant's well water system, yet took no action.

Rancho Nicasio and it's owner Bob Brown will also be named as defendants.

While the claims filed with the County required submittal of a monetary amount, the Class Action does not specify a dollar amount. If successful, an award in the suit could be anything or nothing.

Schoonover and his clients have five months in which to file the lawsuit. After officially filing the class action suit, "discovery" of evidence begins, including mandatory disclosure of permits and test results, and deposition of all witnesses. Potential witnesses include former and current County workers, County administrators, and Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who was named in the initial claims as allegedly exerting political pressure on County workers to relax enforcement-both in general, and specifically at Rancho Nicasio-a claim which echoes the findings of the Marin Civil Grand Jury report issued last June.

The topic of the illnesses at Rancho Nicasio is not isolated, in that they relate to growing concerns regarding enforcement of public health and safety regulations in West Marin. As the Rancho Nicasio suit moves forward, it may serve to clarify some of the issues surrounding those concerns. Suit Motivation

West Marin, while geographically large, is a close-knit set of small communities, composed largely of people who are happy to be away from the dog-eat-dog culture prevalent in many other places. A neighbor engaged in such an local, public lawsuit naturally raises questions in the community.

When asked about how this legal action came about, initial plaintiff Jerelyn Jacobson of Point Reyes Station related the following.

Shortly after dining at Rancho Nicasio, Jacobson became violently ill for approximately four days, her body racked by vomiting, severe diarrhea, and high fever. She experienced general feelings of weakness for about two weeks.

In addition to her prolonged discomfort, she lost four days of work as a result of her illness.

Seeking to recover lost wages, Jacobson made an inquiry with owner Bob Brown and filed a claim with Rancho Nicasio's insurer. In addition to a small amount of personal compensation, Jacobson hoped her claim would help promote better protection of the public in the future.

The insurance carrier wanted "proof" of illness, either by County health department determination, which was not forthcoming, or definitive coliform lab results, which were no longer possible. Upon refusal by the insurance carrier, Jacobson says she was motivated "to clear things up and set things right." It seemed wrong to her that the insurance company was not inclined to make up for losses experienced by the customers who had become ill.

Jacobson felt that the sickness she was experiencing was very severe, and she imagined how extremely dangerous a situation it might be if any children, elderly or immune-compromised people were to contract the same illness. She felt the attitude of Rancho Nicasio and its insurer to be inappropriately cavalier in the face of the severe symptoms of those who had been made ill. It was at this point that she retained attorney Stephen Schoonover, to look into legal options.

As Schoonover began preliminary investigations, he soon uncovered Rancho Nicasio's related past troubles, and public health oversight by the County that was spotty at best. "To clear things up and set things right" in terms of protecting the public would now clearly have to involve the County as well as Rancho Nicasio.

Someone interested purely in personal gain might have filed suit as an individual. However, in keeping with her desire to affect the policies which led to the illnesses, Jacobson decided on a Class Action, which would allow the voices of others similarly afflicted to be heard.

The initial claims were filed with numerous "Does"-as in "John Doe"-as plaintiffs who may be named later, allowing addition of others who might have experienced illness or discomfort after visiting Rancho Nicasio around the same time.

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