Family sues Minnesota State Fair after boy contracts E. coli, develops permanent kidney damage after touching animals

People pet a newborn calf in the Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair. Clint Austin /
People pet a newborn calf in the Miracle of Birth Center at the Minnesota State Fair. Clint Austin /
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ST. PAUL — A 4-year-old became so sick after visiting the Minnesota State Fair and touching livestock that he was hospitalized and developed permanent kidney damage, according to a recently filed lawsuit.

The boy was diagnosed with E. coli and a complication of the infection that can cause life-threatening kidney failure, said the lawsuit against the State Fair.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced in September they were investigating 11 cases of E. coli infections of people and they determined the outbreak was associated with visiting the Miracle of Birth Center, said Joni Scheftel, Minnesota public health veterinarian. Seven of the people sickened were hospitalized.

On Aug. 29, Hennepin County resident Christina Vonderhaar brought her son to the State Fair in Falcon Heights and they visited the Miracle of Birth Center, according to the lawsuit filed last week in Ramsey County District Court. The boy, now 5, touched and felt several types of animals.

The boy became sick on Aug. 31, was taken to the emergency room on Sept. 3 and admitted to the hospital. He was transferred the next day to Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, where he remained hospitalized until Sept. 13.


He was diagnosed with E. coli O157:H7 and hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication of the infection. He “experienced permanent physical damage to his kidneys and other bodily organs,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges the Minnesota State Agricultural Society, which operates the State Fair, was “negligent in the operation, maintenance and control of the Minnesota State Fair and otherwise failed to properly implement measures to reduce disease transmission to people.”

A spokesperson for the State Fair said Tuesday, Dec. 31, they cannot comment about a case in litigation.

Vonderhaar’s son has medical and hospital expenses, she lost wages and there are expected to be future medical expenses, according to the lawsuit, which seeks more than $50,000 in damages.

The Minnesota Department of Health was unable to determine which species of animals were the source of the E. coli outbreak, Scheftel said. The people who were sickened, who ranged from 2 to 43 years old, had contact with cattle, swine, goats and sheep.

Scheftel and other state health officials have met with State Fair and Miracle of Birth Center representatives to discuss ways to increase visitor safety.

“They do a lot of things right — the hand-washing facilities are excellent; they follow many of the national guidelines, such as people cannot go in the pens; and of course it’s quite clean in there,” Scheftel said. “…. One thing we think is a factor is how long people spend there before leaving to wash their hands and one things we talked about is putting hand sanitizer stations around inside the building, which can be used for short-term hand hygiene.”

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