Food-Poisoning Plaintiffs Gain New Tactics

Between July and October 2002, a multi-state outbreak of listeriosis affected 54 people, leading to eight deaths and three fetal deaths in pregnant women. The food poisoning outbreak was contributed to two turkey processing companies, Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. and Jack Lambersky Poultry Co., whose ready-to-eat turkey products were tainted with listeria. Evidence shows that the listeriosis found in both plants “had the same bacteriological and molecular characteristics as the strain implicated in the 2002 outbreak.”

In litigation over this deadly outbreak, a federal judge broke new legal ground by stating that the victims could use the alternative liability doctrine to bring action against both companies—without having to prove which company actually caused their injuries. Attorney and Stephan Matanovic of Golomb Legalrepresented one of the four plaintiffs in this consolidated case.

According to U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage, “The issue is not whether the plaintiff in each case can identify the specific defendant’s product that caused her injury. The issue is whether the plaintiff can identify having ingested tainted product, leaving open the question of which defendant’s product, if not both, caused the injury.” Although medical science may never be able to pinpoint the exact source of the outbreak, Savage explains that this does not absolve the defendants from liability.

The alternative liability doctrine only applies when each defendant’s conduct is simultaneous and identical, and when all potential tortfeasors have been joined as defendants—which was true in this case. Savage rejected the argument that the theory is invalid because the two turkey processing companies operated independent production facilities. He countered this by stating that “Each did not have to know that the other was simultaneously selling negligently produced product.”

Ultimately, all four of the plaintiffs settled their claims out of court.