As the Associated Press reported today, attorneys for Sheetz convenience stores and scores of customers sickened during a salmonella outbreak two years ago have settled more than 80 lawsuits in recent weeks and agreed to delay a filing deadline in hopes that dozens of other claims might settle.
Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the outbreak, which was traced to salmonella-tainted Roma tomatoes. Ordinarily, that would also represent the statute of limitations for some suits, but attorneys for Sheetz, its customers and various insurance companies involved have agreed to push that back to July 21.
“Basically, Sheetz and we want to resolve the claims without having to file lawsuits,” said Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents 139 of those who were sickened.
The outbreak began on July 1, 2004 and eventually more than 400 people became ill in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states. Federal investigators traced the tomatoes to a Florida packing house, but said nothing was done wrong there to taint them.
The federal investigation also absolved Altoona-based Sheetz Inc. and the tomato wholesaler, Coronet Foods Inc., of Wheeling, W.Va. But under Pennsylvania’s strict liability laws, both can still be sued because they sold the tomatoes.
In Pennsylvania, most civil lawsuits must be filed within two years. Because July 1 falls on a Saturday this year, Friday would have been the last day many of those sickened could have sued.
But Marler and Michael Cortez, Sheetz’s vice president and general counsel, said the 88 settlements in recent weeks have prompted continued settlement talks.
Marler has filed one lawsuit in Blair County so attorneys can conduct discovery and attempt to gain more information about how the tomatoes were tainted. That still hasn’t been determined, he said.
But Marler represents 50 more clients whose claims he hopes to resolve during the three-week deadline extension.
If the cases don’t settle, “the lawsuits are the next logical step in the process,” Cortez said. Nobody died in the Sheetz outbreak. Most plaintiffs were sick for several days or weeks and sought damages for everything from medical bills to ruined vacations and embarrassment; one 7-year-old boy, for example, had to wear disposable training pants and lost 10 pounds due to diarrhea.
Others reported more serious injuries, including nerve damage from intravenous tubes inserted to combat dehydration, continuing bouts with irritable bowel syndrome and arthritis, Marler said.
Coronet shut down in October 2004 and filed for bankruptcy shortly after a few lawsuits were filed by other attorneys. Marler and Cortez said Coronet has $11 million dollars worth of insurance that also covers Sheetz, which Marler said is more than enough to cover all the legal claims.
Sheetz’s insurance company and two that insure Coronet must still determine who will pay what share of the settlements, Marler and Cortez said.
“With respect to our customers, we’ve determined they will get paid,” Cortez said. “And the rest of the debate as to who bears that ultimate responsibility will be held at a later date.”
Marler said individual settlement amounts are confidential; Cortez on Thursday said he could not immediately determine how much Sheetz has paid its customers overall.
Besides Marler’s cases, Sheetz has settled 600 claims out of court, ranging from people who got ill to customers who were simply concerned about becoming sick. Most of the 600 contacted the company through a toll-free hot line, Cortez said.
Another 100 customers represented by other attorneys have either settled cases or were still mulling lawsuits, Sheetz attorney Chris Lee said.