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Jury to decide if baby formula caused Sioux City girl's brain damage

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Infant formula lawsuit

Troy Kunkel and Megan Surber, of Sioux City, are shown with their daughter, Jeanine Kunkel, in February 2011. A federal jury found Friday that Similac powdered infant formula did not cause brain damage to Jeanine. 

SIOUX CITY | Jeanine Kunkel sits in her wheelchair, unable to speak.

She receives her food through a tube and takes six medications daily to control seizures and relax her muscles.

On Monday, Security National Bank in Sioux City will go to court on her behalf against the maker of the Similac powdered infant formula that Jeanine's parents believe led to their daughter contracting bacterial meningitis and causing severe brain damage when she was just days old.

The bank, as the child's conservator, sued Abbott Laboratories in U.S. District Court in Sioux City in February 2011 and seeks monetary damages to pay for Jeanine's future care.

Jury selection begins Monday. The trial is expected to last up to two weeks.

In a 2011 interview, the girl's mother, Megan Surber, said that after switching Jeanine from liquid to powdered formula she received in a gift bag from the hospital, her daughter changed within 24 hours and began crying uncontrollably. The 12-day-old girl was diagnosed with Enterobacter sakazakii meningitis, and she suffered severe, permanent brain damage.

Surber said in that interview that Jeanine's twin brother remained in the hospital with jaundice after birth and did not drink the formula. He has not had health problems.

According to the lawsuit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has found that powdered infant formula is associated with E. sakazakii infections.

Abbott spokeswoman Tami Jones said the company's products are tested for safety.

"Healthy babies and children are at the heart of what we do, and we recognize the challenges of this child’s circumstances for the Kunkel family," Jones said. "The quality and safety of our products are our top priorities. All powdered infant formula products are extensively tested before release to assure that they meet the nutritional needs of infants and to assure the safety of those products."

The bank's attorneys declined to comment on the record.

Jeanine's father, Troy Kunkel, said Thursday that his daughter, now 5, remains in a wheelchair and can't walk or talk. She does attend school, but is often absent because she contracts every cold and illness that other students bring to school.

Kunkel said he did not know how much money the bank will seek from the jury, but that he wasn't concerned about a jury award. Raising awareness about potential risks of using powdered infant formula is more important, and he said he hopes Jeanine's case will do that.

"If it weren't for the trial, the news, she'd just be another medical case," Kunkel said. "People need to be aware."


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