Sheetz Shoots for Mediation

Retailer joins in request to settle salmonella lawsuits out of court

ALTOONA, Pa. -- Mediation could ease Sheetz Inc.'s legal load as the convenience store chain looks to settle lawsuits filed by more than 80 people who claim they got sick after eating salmonella-tainted tomatoes on the chain's sandwiches. As such, Sheetz officials are joining attorneys representing those plaintiffs in West Virginia in a request to bring the lawsuits to a mediation table.

We think it makes sense and we support it, and we'll join in on the motion seeking mediation, Michael Cortez, Sheetz's vice president and general counsel, told CSP Daily [image-nocss] News. We've said all along that the people who got sick from salmonella should be taken care of, that we are going to try to do the right thing. And it seems to us that these customers shouldn't have to go to court to do that.

In July 2004, the salmonella outbreak struck Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio involving 28 of Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz's stores. Sheetz had purchased the tomatoes from Wheeling, W.Va.-based Coronet Foods Inc., which had gotten them from a Florida tomato-packing house. More than 400 people reported illnesses, according to the Center for Disease Control. Coronet, which is named in the lawsuits, closed in October and filed bankruptcy soon afterward.

Late last month, Seattle food-illness attorney Bill Marler entered a request to the West Virginia bankruptcy judge asking that the plaintiffs' attorneys deal directly with Sheetz and Coronet, according to the Associated Press. The way I look at it is, the real victims here are the people who bought sandwiches, Marler told AP. They should be dealt with fairly, up front, right now.

Eric Anderson, a Pittsburgh attorney representing Coronet in the lawsuits, told AP he would back any action that would help resolve the cases. Coronet certainly is willing to entertain any reasonable way to settle these casescost effectively and efficiently, he said.

While the judge has not yet set a date to consider the request, Cortez said, ultimately, he is hopeful the lawsuits can be resolved as soon as possible. In general, mediation should help everybody involved, he said. This is something that we'd like to get started, and we'd like to get an answer from the judge as soon as we can.

According to AP, Marler said most of the claims will be for less than $100,000 to cover medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. Any settlements of less than $50,000 would be paid outright and larger settlements would need court approval under Marler's proposal. Those who do not settle would have the right to sure Coronet and Sheetz.

Still to be determined is whether other defendants will be named in the lawsuits. It has been suggested that the upstream companies who initially supplied the tomatoes to coronet could also be named in the lawsuits. Our foremost concern is for the customers, said Cortez. That decision is something that's probably best left for a later date.

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