Salmonella Suits OK'd

Judge allows plaintiffs in tainted sandwich incident to sue companies

PITTSBURGH -- A West Virginia federal bankruptcy judge has allowed more than 80 people who claim they were sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes to sue the company that supplied the tomatoes and Sheetz Inc., said the Associated Press.

Federal Judge L. Edward Friend II signed an order Wednesday allowing plaintiffs to sue Coronet Foods Inc., a bankrupt Wheeling, W.Va., company, and Sheetz, Altoona, Pa., after attorneys for Coronet said they did not want to mediate the lawsuits.

Seattle food-illness attorney Bill Marler, who had [image-nocss] sought mediation, said he planned to file a class-action lawsuit yesterday naming Coronet.

Eric Anderson, the Pittsburgh attorney defending Coronet against lawsuits, declined to comment, saying he had not had time to talk with Coronet officials. Coronet's bankruptcy attorney, Charles J. Kaiser Jr., said he had not seen the order but any awards would be paid from Coronet's insurance. Coronet shut down in October and filed for bankruptcy shortly after a few lawsuits were filed. The company has $11 million dollars worth of insurance covering it, Marler has said.

Mike Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz, said the order did not necessarily preclude the chain from settling the claims. He said Sheetz's goal has been, let's get them in, find out what their claims are and take care of them.

More than 400 people were sickened in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states after eating Roma tomatoes served at Sheetz stores last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The CDC traced the tainted tomatoes to a Florida packing house, which it did not identify, but said the packing house followed food-safety practices and no trace of the bacteria was found there. Food inspectors said Coronet and Sheetz did nothing wrong, but under the law they can be held liable because they supplied and prepared the tomatoes for human consumption.

Marler has said most claims will be for less than $100,000 to cover medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering.