Judge allows plaintiffs in salmonella outbreak to sue companies

PITTSBURGH - A West Virginia federal bankruptcy judge has allowed more than 80 people who claim they were sickened by salmonella-tainted tomatoes to sue the company that supplied the tomatoes and the Sheetz convenience store chain.

Federal Judge L. Edward Friend II signed an order Wednesday allowing plaintiffs to sue Coronet Foods Inc., a bankrupt Wheeling, W.Va., company, and Sheetz after attorneys for Coronet said they didn't want to mediate the lawsuits.

Seattle food-illness attorney Bill Marler, who had sought mediation, said he planned to file a class-action lawsuit Thursday naming Coronet.

Eric Anderson, the Pittsburgh attorney defending Coronet against lawsuits, declined comment, saying he had not had time to talk with Coronet officials. Coronet's bankruptcy attorney, Charles J. Kaiser Jr., said he had not seen the order but any rewards would be paid from Coronet's insurance.

Coronet shut down in October and filed bankruptcy shortly after a few lawsuits were filed. The company has $11 million dollars worth of insurance covering it, Marler has said.

Mike Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz, said the order didn't necessarily preclude the convenience store chain from settling the claims. Sheetz's goal has been the same, Cortez said, "let's get them in, find out what their claims are and take care of them."

More than 400 people were sickened in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states after eating Roma tomatoes served at Sheetz stores last year, 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.

Nobody died in the Sheetz outbreak. Marler has said most claims will be for less than $100,000 to cover medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering.