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PITTSBURGH -- Attorneys for more than 80 people who claim they were sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes on sandwiches in Sheetz Inc. stores want a West Virginia bankruptcy judge to let them mediate their lawsuits, the Associated Press reported.
Seattle food-illness attorney Bill Marler wants plaintiffs' attorneys to bargain directly with Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz and Coronet Foods Inc., the bankrupt Wheeling, W.Va., company that sold the Roma tomatoes to Sheetz.
"The way I look at is, the real innocent victims here are the people who bought sandwiches. They should be dealt with fairly, up front, right now," Marler said. "Then you can let the business interests fight it out on their own in a different format."
Altoona-based Sheetz said it supports mediation.
"From our perspective, what this allows us to do is free up some funds so our customers can be taken care of," said Michael Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz.
Coronet shut down in October and filed bankruptcy shortly after a few lawsuits were filed. Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge L. Edward Friend II must approve the mediation plan because bankrupt companies can't be sued or subject to legal claims without court approval.
Coronet has $11 million dollars worth of insurance covering it, Marler said. Sheetz and the alleged victims would target that money only, not Coronet's other assets, he said.
More than 400 people were sickened in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states in the Sheetz outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC traced the tainted tomatoes to a Florida packing house that it did not identify, but said the packing house followed food-safety practices and no trace of the bacteria was found there.
Food inspectors also 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 said.
Nobody died in the Sheetz outbreak, and Marler said most 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 don't settle would have the right to sue Coronet and Sheetz.