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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Nebraska Beef Sues Minnesota Church

In one of the boldest, yet boneheaded, moves I have ever seen in 15 years of litigating E. coli O157:H7 cases, after we sued it, Nebraska Beef filed a third party complaint against the Salem Lutheran Church of Longville, Minnesota claiming, among other things:

That, upon information and belief, an environmental assessment of the church kitchen and food preparation procedures by the Minnesota Department of Health indicated that there was a high potential of cross-contamination between the ground beef [filled with pathogenic cow shit] and other foods during food preparation.

That, upon information and belief, the damages sustained by the Plaintiff[s], if any, [one died of E. coli-related complications, and one suffered acute kidney failure] are the direct and proximate result of the negligence and/or other fault for tortuous conduct of Third-Party Defendant Salem Lutheran Church.

We have the honor of representing several of the folks and families who were sickened and died in this needless outbreak caused by Nebraska Beef’s E. coli contaminated beef. In late July and early August 2006, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) received three E. coli O157:H7 stool isolates from residents of, and visitors to, Longville, Minnesota. Pulsed-field gel electrophoreses (PFGE) patterns for all three were indistinguishable, and the pattern had never been seen before in Minnesota. At the same time, MDH learned of an outbreak of gastrointestinal illnesses among members of the Salem Lutheran Church in Longville. The church had served meals on July 10 and 19, and multiple congregation members subsequently fell ill with cramps and bloody diarrhea.

The MDH opened an epidemiological and environmental health investigation of the three confirmed E. coli O157:H7 illnesses and the church outbreak. MDH obtained the member directory from the church and interviewed parishioners to obtain information concerning their attendance at church events along with a general food and activity history. In addition, an MDH sanitarian visited the Salem Lutheran Church to conduct an environmental assessment of the kitchen where the food for the July 19 meal had been prepared. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) contacted local grocery stores and restaurants to obtain information on the type and source of beef products involved.

MDA and MDH learned that ground beef used to make meatballs for the church meal, as well as the ground beef purchased by numerous area restaurants, where others were sickened, was purchased at Tabaka’s Supervalu. On July 17, members of the church had purchased 40 pounds of ground beef from the Supervalu. MDA conducted an on-site inspection at the store on August 7, 2006.

MDA conducted a traceback of the ground beef purchased at the Supervalu and used in the July 19 meal. The store had received approximately 1,900 pounds of chuck rolls from distributor, Interstate Meat on July 10. The majority of the chuck rolls were ground into ground beef at the Supervalu. The Supervalu sold ground beef from the July 10 shipment to three Longville restaurants in the same time period as the sale to church members.

The MDA traceback of the chuck rolls from Interstate Meat revealed that the source of the chuck rolls delivered to the Supervalu was the Nebraska Beef processing plant. In addition to this, the USDA reported that a sample of beef trimmings collected on June 14, 2006 at Nebraska Beef cultured positive for E. coli O157:H7, and that the isolate was indistinguishable by PFGE analysis to the outbreak strain.

Ultimately, MDH concluded that:

• “There was an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections among members of the Longville, Minnesota community.
• Ground beef from Tabaka’s Supervalu was the “source of E. coli O157:H7 for this outbreak.”
• “The isolation of the rare outbreak PFGE subtype of E. coli O157:H7 from a sample of beef trimmings from a USDA-inspected plant in the weeks prior to the outbreak suggests that the chuck rolls that were used to produce the ground beef at the store were likely already contaminated when received by the store.”
• “…records that were available from the Tabaka’s Supervalu and [Interstate Meat] suggested that the ultimate source of the implicated chuck rolls was [Nebraska Beef].

Nebraska Beef sues a church for serving its E. coli contaminated meat (that was also served in restaurants that people were sickened in too) – shame on you Nebraska Beef.

Full disclosure – I was an acolyte in a Lutheran Church growing up.  Not only is there no legal reason for Nebraska Beef to sue the church in this instance – my mom (age 80) and dad (age 78) would have killed me if I had.

From the Wall Street Journal –  Law Blog

From the Minneapolis Start Tribune

Meat plant sues Longville church over E. coli outbreak

State health officials, meanwhile, took genetic samples of the E. coli found in Minnesota victims and sent those to the CDC as well, leading to a match with the Nebraska plant, according to Marler.

"The reality is they cannot hide from the genetic fingerprint that was found at their plant," said Marler. He said he plans to subpoena the USDA to release the genetic fingerprint tying Nebraska Beef to the Longville outbreak.

State epidemiologist Kirk Smith said he also believes that Nebraska Beef was the source, wondering why they would file a lawsuit blaming the church if they weren’t.

"If they’re not involved in this, why do they care?" he asked.

Case of Volunteer Church Cooks & Alleged Contaminated Meat – Can Blow Up into Landmark Liability Issues

Bill Marler featured in Wall Street Journal Law Blog again

– Continue Reading News Coverage:


Meat plant sues Longville church over E. coli outbreak

A woman died after eating at Longville, Minn., church in 2006.

By Matt McKinney, Star Tribune

In a twist on the typical food safety lawsuit, a meat plant is suing a church after a deadly E. coli outbreak, pinning blame for the contagion on the church kitchen.

The Nebraska Beef Ltd. slaughterhouse alleged to be the source of ground beef that killed one and sickened 17 in Longville, Minn., last year has sued Salem Lutheran Church.

The lawsuit alleges that volunteer cooks at the church’s monthly potluck were negligent as they prepared meatballs out of ground beef purchased at a local grocery store.

"If you went to eat at McDonald’s and they didn’t process the food right, why would you be less mad if you went to a church smorgasbord," said Gary J. Gordon, the Minneapolis lawyer representing the Omaha slaughterhouse. "Everybody that’s providing food to the public has to adhere to a certain standard of reasonable care."

The church supper was immediately suspect in the contagion that spread fear and sickness through rural Longville on July 19, 2006. Nearly all of the people who fell ill had eaten at the potluck, including Carolyn Hawkinson, 73, who died a month and a day later.

Health investigators soon narrowed their focus to meatballs contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, determining the meat had come from one of two slaughterhouses that had supplied a local grocery store with beef.

Now the company says the outbreak was the church’s fault. No one at the church had any comment Tuesday.

"This was the first big case that we had seen in years," said Bill Marler, an attorney based in Seattle who has handled numerous E. coli cases nationwide. He filed three lawsuits earlier this month alleging that Nebraska Beef, along with distributor Interstate Meat Services and Longville supermarket Tabaka’s Supervalu should be held responsible for Hawkinson’s death and the illnesses of two others.

Nebraska Beef never cited?

A curious aspect of the legal case is that there is no public record available that cites Nebraska Beef as the source of the contamination. A USDA investigation shortly afterward apparently found the source of the outbreak but would not name it, according to a report from the state Department of Health.

That’s the standard policy, according to a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service: A plant responsible for an outbreak is not named.

When asked why, the spokeswoman, Amanda Eamich, said: "It just is not."

If there had been a recall or if the agency found violations of food safety rules, the plant’s name would become public, she added.

"It’s our goal to get the source of contamination, to determine the source and make sure the appropriate measures are taken," Eamich said.

Marler, the attorney representing Hawkinson and other victims of the Longville outbreak, said he linked the company to the outbreak through his own investigation.

Reversing a trend

A federal inspector at the Nebraska Beef plant found E. coli O157:H7 bacteria and took a genetic fingerprint of it, sending that information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which maintains a database of all E. coli samples, according to Marler.

State health officials, meanwhile, took genetic samples of the E. coli found in Minnesota victims and sent those to the CDC as well, leading to a match with the Nebraska plant, according to Marler.

"The reality is they cannot hide from the genetic fingerprint that was found at their plant," said Marler. He said he plans to subpoena the USDA to release the genetic fingerprint tying Nebraska Beef to the Longville outbreak.

State epidemiologist Kirk Smith said he also believes that Nebraska Beef was the source, wondering why they would file a lawsuit blaming the church if they weren’t.

"If they’re not involved in this, why do they care?" he asked.

He released a report on the outbreak that concluded the tainted meat had come from one of two plants, identified only as "Plant A" and "Plant B," adding in the report that the USDA would not share with the State Department of Health the name of the plant that supplied the tainted meat. He said Tuesday that Plant A was Nebraska Beef.

Nebraska Beef Ltd. fought off an attempt by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shut down the plant in 2003. The government argued that serious violations of food safety rules warranted a temporary closure. The company won a reprieve in court by arguing that it could not survive financially if it were temporarily closed.

The Longville case was the first outbreak in a series of high-profile E. coli cases in beef nationwide that reversed a trend of fewer cases each year, puzzling researchers.

"There’s a setback here somewhere, and we don’t know why," Smith said.

Nebraska meat processor sues church over E. coli outbreak

The Associated Press – Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Nebraska meat processor says a Minnesota church that served tainted beef meatballs at its smorgasbord last year may have been partly responsible for an E-coli outbreak that was linked to one death and at least 17 illnesses.

Nebraska Beef sued Salem Lutheran Church to add the Longville, Minnesota, church as a fifth defendant in an existing lawsuit.

Earlier this month the widower of a Cass County woman who died in August 2006 sued Nebraska Beef and three other companies that helped supply beef that was the likely source of the outbreak.

Nebraska Beef’s lawyer Gary Gordon says the church essentially acted like a restaurant in this situation and its role in the outbreak should be examined.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer Bill Marler says he thinks suing the church was a boneheaded legal strategy because it will be difficult to convince a jury the church should be held liable.

  • Bonehead, a term used to describe someone with a fixed sense of purpose to the point of being foolish.

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) A Nebraska meat processor says a Minnesota church that served tainted beef meatballs at its smorgasbord may have been responsible for an E. coli outbreak that was linked to one death and at least 17 illnesses last year.  Nebraska Beef sued Salem Lutheran Church to add the Longville, Minn., church as a fifth defendant in an existing lawsuit. Earlier this month the widower of a Cass County, Minn., woman who died in August 2006 sued Nebraska Beef and three other companies that helped supply beef that was the likely source of the outbreak.  Gary Gordon, who represents the Omaha-based meat processor, said Salem Lutheran essentially acted like a restaurant in this situation and its role in the outbreak should be examined.  "Why should they be held to a different standard than the local Arby’s?" Gordon said.  Bill Marler, whose Seattle-based firm represents the plaintiffs, said he’s never heard of a food manufacturer suing a private entity like a church although he has seen cases where the manufacturer sued a restaurant.  Marler said it will be difficult to convince a jury that the church should be held liable for the outbreak.  "It’s one of the most boneheaded legal strategies I’ve ever seen in 20 years of legal practice," said Marler, who handles many food-borne illness cases.  The church referred questions about the lawsuit to its insurance company, Church Mutual, and representatives of the Merrill, Wis.-based company did not immediately return calls for comment Tuesday.  Marler said he’s confident the beef served at the church can be linked to the Nebraska Beef plant because tests of the E. coli strain health officials found in Longville matches E. coli tests of meat in the Nebraska Beef plant.  But Gordon said there’s not enough documentation to prove the tainted beef came from Nebraska Beef. And he said the Minnesota Health Department’s investigation of the outbreak raised questions about how the church workers handled the meat.  Stanton Hawkinson filed his lawsuit over his wife’s death earlier this month in Minnesota’s Hennepin County.  State health officials have said that Carolyn Hawkinson, 73, was among 17 people in the Longville area who were sickened after eating at a church supper in July 2006.  Two couples from the Longville area have also filed lawsuits in Cass County, Minn., over the same E. coli outbreak.  All the lawsuits filed earlier this month name Nebraska Beef, Interstate Meat Services, Inc., also known as Falk Properties Inc.; and Tabaka’s Super Valu as defendants.  E. coli causes intestinal illness that generally clears up within a week for adults but can be deadly for the very young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Symptoms can include severe stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.  The potentially fatal bacteria are harbored in the intestines of cattle. Improper butchering and processing can cause the E. coli to get onto meat. Thorough cooking, to at least 160 degrees internal temperature, can destroy the bacteria.

  • And some defense lawyer advised his client to do this?

  • Carl

    You gotta appreciate the chutzpah of a company suing the church ladies for mishandling their adulterated meat. Like the kid who murdered his parents and asked for clemency because he was an orphan.
    Carl in Spring, Texas

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  • That’s a real crappy situation. No one wins in that one.

  • Holy smokes. What a rotten court case. Not sure I’d want to be the judge on this one. But maybe again I would to ensure justice prevails.

  • Glad to see someone who enjoys what they do. Keep it up!

  • I definitely agree with this post. I have no doubt that the members of the church are great.

  • Great post for the masses