Food Court Report - Food-Borne Illness Outbreaks: A Case Study
A team of Keller and Heckman attorneys recently obtained a jury verdict of $7.5 million on behalf of a frozen berry
Goknur refused to compensate injured consumers and denied all liability. In May of 2015, Townsend Farms sued Goknur in California federal court to shift over to Goknur the costs and attorneys fees incurred to investigate claims and make injured consumers whole by reason of strict liability.
In April of 2017, a jury found in favor of Townsend Farms on all legal claims and awarded $7.5 million in damages, a portion of which was awarded as punitive damages. To prevail at trial, Townsend Farms was required to adduce outside expert testimony to prove that the FDA and CDC correctly identified Goknur as the source of the contamination. The experts vindicated the latest techniques of the U.S. health officials to pinpoint a contamination source among five product ingredients that were sourced from many countries.
However, the trial and the expert testimony came at a cost in terms of time and money that was not insignificant, illustrating the difficulty of recovering against foreign supplier defendants. In cases of food borne illnesses, consumer attorneys typically can recover fully against any U.S. company in the supply chain, even though the actual wrongdoer was the foreign supplier. Unless insurance is adequate to cover the U.S. company's liability, it is highly advisable that U.S. customers choose their foreign suppliers wisely.
In this case, Townsend Farms did its due diligence and required a detailed supplier verification form from Goknur, and obtained the standard guarantees of compliance with all U.S. food safety laws.Townsend Farms also relied on long-time trusted brokers who visited the Goknur manufacturing facilities and who had a track record of sourcing reliable, safe product from Goknur in the past. Despite all of these efforts, however, the evidence at trial established Goknur's conscious disregard of basic food safety principles - such as proper training of workers, basic hand sanitation, production control and recordkeeping - was sufficient for an award of punitive damages.
Prior to the events leading to the contamination, a search of the FDA database for import alerts would have revealed several instances where FDA found that Goknur was shipping fraudulent or adulterated pomegranate juice into the U.S. Although Townsend Farms' due diligence on Goknur at the time easily met industry standards, in retrospect these import alerts could have served as a "yellow flag" for further investigations into Goknur's food safety and processing practices. A company that intentionally adulterates a product for profit, one can reasonably surmise, is less likely to be fastidious in implementing food safety standards consistent with U.S. law.
Firms would be well-advised to "go above and beyond" legal requirements in researching their suppliers, particularly foreign suppliers, given the increased technical capabilities of U.S. health officials to pinpoint the sources of food-borne illness, and the difficulties in recovering from suppliers located abroad.