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Settlement of 1.1 Million Awarded in Listeria Death Lawsuit

The family of an 81-year-old Seguin man who died of listeriosis during an outbreak last year was awarded a $1.1 million default judgment against a San Antonio produce company Tuesday.

Hermilo Castellanos died in June 2010, one of five listeriosis fatalities in an outbreak investigated by state health officials. Four were linked to cut celery produced by Sangar Produce & Processing Co., which was ordered closed in October.

State District Judge Barbara Nellermoe ruled in favor of Castellanos' family.

“We had a terrible time finding anyone from the company,” said David Babcock, an attorney with the Seattle law firm Marler Clark who represented the victim's family. “We did finally get them properly served, and they just didn't show up.”

At least 10 people in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties were infected with listeria bacteria during the outbreak. Testing by the Texas Department of State Health Services conclusively linked nine to the company's celery, and cited Sangar for a number of deficiencies at its Zarzamora Street plant.

The company disputed the findings, saying its own lab tests showed no contamination. But subsequent tests by the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the presence of listeria.

The plant was ordered closed and a recall was ordered for thousands of pounds of produce distributed to more than 300 customers, including restaurants, hospitals, school districts, military facilities and large wholesalers.

Like the other victims, Castellanos was elderly and suffered from underlying health problems.

According to the complaint, Castellanos ate celery from the company while a patient at Methodist Hospital, which wasn't a party in the lawsuit. The hospital got the celery from a distributor, which had purchased it from Sangar.

Sangar owner Kenneth Sanquist Jr. could not be reached for comment.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said Nino's Produce and Processing Co. has been licensed to operate in the plant since May and did “an excellent job” of sanitizing it. She said state inspectors found no more contamination.

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