Today’s announcement that “Lawyers representing 28 victims of last year’s E. coli outbreak at Godstone farm in Surrey are preparing to demand “substantial” damages in a group legal action” raises complex and interesting issues. Of course it is extremely sad that so many people suffered, and are still suffering, from the outbreak of E. coli traced to the farm in September 2009. However, Godstone farm has provided an important source of education and enjoyment for thousands of people over many years. It does not make huge profits, and it is difficult to imagine how the owners could afford to pay substantial damages.
I have extremely fond memories of taking my children to Godstone farm on many occasions more than a decade ago. What struck me particularly was just how much the owners advertised the importance of people washing their hands. Indeed, I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have visited the farm then without being aware of the risks that were involved. Godstone provided many more notices and offered more taps for people to use than did most other farms that we visited.
There is always a risk that people can pick up infections and illnesses from animals. Parents of young children have responsibilities for their care in all sorts of situations – including the need to wash their hands carefully when they have been in contact with animals. Likewise, farms have a duty to inform the public as soon as they are aware that their animals definitely carry disease.
I guess that the only real winners in this case will be the lawyers!
The subsequent independent report published on 15th June was widely reported as being critical of both the Health Protection Agency and the farm:
- “A “substantial” number of E.coli cases could have been prevented if health chiefs had responded quickly to an outbreak at a petting farm, a damning report said today. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) missed a key opportunity to take action which would have restricted the size of the outbreak at Godstone Farm, near Redhill, Surrey, last year” (The Independent)
- St George’s University of London press release about the findings of Professor George Griffin who led the investigation