Pritzker Hageman law firm won a $6.5 million verdict in a landmark Salmonella lawsuit against a chicken processing company, Foster Poultry Farms (Foster Farms). Our client was a 5-year-old child (Noah C.) who contracted Salmonella Heidelberg and, as a result, suffered brain damage. The case was tried in Arizona federal court (2:15-cv-02587-DLR). Attorneys Eric Hageman and David Coyle were part of the trial team.
Attorney Eric Hageman was quoted in a Bloomberg article about the $6.5 million verdict:
“They hammered away that this chicken had the stamp of approval from the USDA, and that it therefore couldn’t be adulterated,” the Cratens’ lawyer, Eric Hageman, of Pritzker Hagemen in Minneapolis, said March 7. Chicken products inherently have some level of salmonella—requiring that consumers take care in its preparation—but Hageman said the evidence in the case demonstrated that Foster Farms “knew its product had a dangerous pathogen and did nothing about it” (Bloomberg).
“The testing showed the chicken had more than 200 times more of this salmonella than found at other poultry plants.”Attorney Eric Hageman, as Quoted by Bloomberg
This groundbreaking case established that chicken producers can be held responsible for Salmonella contamination on raw chicken product even though:
- The USDA does not consider Salmonella a per se “adulterant” in raw chicken and
- The bacteria can be killed by cooking the chicken.
The case sets an important precedent for food safety, protecting consumers who trust chicken producers to sell safe food products.
The defendant in the lawsuit, Foster Poultry Farms, made the following arguments to try to avoid legal responsibility for the harm to our 5-year-old client: 1) because Salmonella contamination is “natural” to raw chicken, it cannot form the basis of liability, regardless of the amount and type of contamination; and 2) because there was no evidence that the child ever consumed its product they could not be held legally responsible. The second argument was made because Plaintiffs could not produce shopper card records, receipts, or other direct evidence that they had purchased Foster Farms chicken.
Attorneys Hageman, Flaherty and Doyle successfully countered these arguments. They introduced evidence that Foster Farms’ entire operation was infested with particularly dangerous strains of Salmonella Heidelberg, including the specific strain that sickened little Noah C. They also argued that Noah C. was part of a very large Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state health departments. This outbreak was linked to Foster Farms chicken by epidemiological and microbiological evidence. According to the CDC, 639 people from 29 states were sickened in the Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak. People were sickened from March 1, 2013, to July 11, 2014.
In what is believed to be the first verdict of its kind, the jury concluded that Foster Farms was negligent in producing Salmonella Heidelberg-contaminated chicken and that, based on epidemiological and microbiological evidence alone, it caused Noah’s illness. The jury attributed 30% of the fault to Foster Farms and 70% to family members for their preparation of the chicken. The net verdict for the family was $1.95 million.
According to lead trial attorney, Eric Hageman, the verdict establishes a precedent that should change the poultry industry. “Traditionally, Foster Farms and other poultry producers have argued that they are under absolutely no obligation to address even pervasive Salmonella contamination. The jury, in this case, said enough is enough. Clean up your act.” The jury’s verdict, Hageman said, “showed that Foster Farms cannot simply hide behind USDA ‘approval’ of its chicken” and was “a rejection of the argument that poultry companies can produce contaminated product and then blame consumers who get sick from eating it.”
- Bloomberg article cited above: Sellers, Steven. “Foster Farms Salmonella Verdict Reveals Evidence Challenges.” Bloomberg News. 08 March 2017. Web.
- Case: Craten v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc., D. Ariz., No. 15-cv-02587.