Pa. Meat Company Settles Listeria Suits

By | May 7, 2006

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. has settled four wrongful-death or injury lawsuits involving the deadly 2002 listeria outbreak that was linked to one of its plants, the meat company announced.

The second food company tied to the outbreak, J.L. Foods, is set to defend itself in federal court next week when the first case reaches trial.

Eight people died and more than 50 were sickened in the outbreak, which led to one of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history.

The listeria strain found in the victims was found by federal investigators in meat processed at a now-closed J.L. Foods plant in Camden, N.J., and in a plant of Pilgrim’s Pride subsidiary Wampler Foods — but not in the meat itself — in Franconia, Pa.

Neither Pilgrim’s Pride nor plaintiffs’ lawyers would disclose terms of the settlements, which have not yet been filed in U.S. District Court.

The settlement announcement came a day after a federal judge refused to throw out the cases pending in Philadelphia, saying a jury could reasonably find the tainted poultry products caused the injuries and deaths.

“As we have said from the outset of litigation, our turkey deli products were safe to eat and did not cause injuries to any of the individuals involved,” Pilgrim’s Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson said in a statement.

“We did this in order to bring the case to a close without incurring the costs and time associated with a trial and possible appeal,” the statement said.

Plaintiff’s attorney Fred Pritzker said Pilgrim’s Pride and Wampler Foods are also negotiating to settle suits filed in Union County, N.J., on behalf of several people — including the family of an 81-year-old man who died and a woman became ill and lost her unborn twins. Atkinson declined immediate comment.

The Philadelphia plaintiffs include a woman who became ill and delivered her child prematurely, which attorneys maintain led to his serious disabilities.

Pilgrim’s Pride recalled 27 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken and temporarily halted operations at the Montgomery County plant after traces of listeria, a bacteria, were found there after the outbreak.

The same bacteria turned up later during tests at the J.L. Foods plant in Camden, N.J., about 30 miles away. The company’s parent, Jack Lambersky Poultry Co., recalled more than 4.2 million pounds of chicken and turkey meat.

“The case shows how important it is for companies to stay on top of their various sanitation and production procedures, and stay on top of changes in federal regulations,” said attorney Shanon Carson, who represents the family of Raymond Drayton, one of the Philadelphia plaintiffs. “When companies fail to do that, outbreaks like this result.”

Drayton, 75, a school bus driver in Philadelphia, died in September 2002. His widow said in depositions that he had eaten several brands of turkey and chicken products.

Lawyers for J.L. Foods did not return telephone messages left Friday.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage said the plaintiffs’ lawyers can rely on “alternate liability theory” and argue that meat from either one of the two plants sickened them. They do not have to tie the food they ate to a single plant, because the strain was only found at the two sites.

The defendants must instead convince a jury that they were not the source of the tainted food, Savage said.

The incubation period for listeria can be as long as 60 days, making it difficult for plaintiffs to remember exactly what foods they ate, Pritzker said. Also, people do not always know what brand of turkey or deli meat they might be eating.

“If you go to a deli counter, you just say you want some turkey,” Pritzker said. “Because of the long incubation period, people just don’t remember where they ate.”

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