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Oregon victims in peanut-related salmonella case will get payout

Lynne Terry, The Oregonian

February 02, 2010

Peter Hurley is among the families of 123 victims who will receive a payout from The Hartford insurance company in the peanut-related salmonella outbreak last year. His son Jacob was sick for 11 days from eating peanut butter crackers.

A year after a nationwide salmonella outbreak killed nine people, sickened more than 700, and fueled one of the biggest recalls in U.S. history, compensation is heading toward victims.

Three families in Oregon will receive a slice of a $12 million insurance policy held by the company at the heart of the outbreak, Peanut Corp. of America.

How much they will get will vary based largely on the severity of their illness and their medical expenses.

But all of them say their focus is not on the money. They want the former president of the now-bankrupt company prosecuted and safety legislation long-stalled in Congress passed.

"If you can't trust what you buy at the grocery store, than what can you trust?" said Monica Salitore of Gresham, who's then-8-year-old son Gavin was sick for several weeks at the end of 2008 from eating peanut butter crackers. "We need a system that regulates and inspects so that Americans can be safe."

Larry Andrews of Roseburg clamors for justice. Last January his wife Karen, then 65, was hospitalized for four days after eating Clif Bars made with PCA products.

"Personally, I've never seen anybody that sick who didn't die," he said, remembering her sunken eyes, grayish skin and bony hands.

Only recently, after months of listlessness, has she ventured out hiking again.

"They have to have some responsibility for that," he said. "If there isn't a price to pay how else do we get their attention?"

Peanut Corp. filed for bankruptcy last February. Civil lawsuits were put on hold as lawyers wrangled over the manufacturer's assets and the proceeds of its $12 million policy from The Hartford insurance company.

A bankruptcy settlement was just reached. The sale of PCA assets will go to creditors and the insurance money will be split among the 123 victims or families of victims who filed a claim against the company by Oct. 31.

"It's a start toward fair compensation," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety expert and lawyer who represents nearly half of those victims. "Initially, they said they didn't have to pay anything."

But he's concerned that only a fraction of everyone sickened in the case -- 714 according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- filed a claim against PCA.

"I would have thought that there would have been hundreds more that would have come forward," Marler said. "And some families of those who died didn't. That really surprised me."

Families of six of the nine who died filed a claim. They will get much of the money, Marler said.

The settlement allows victims to pursue civil suits, for example against Kellogg Co., which made tainted peanut butter crackers, or Clif Bar & Co.

Peter Hurley, who is part of the bankruptcy settlement, filed a suit against Kellogg over the illness of his son. Jacob, who was 3 at the time, was severely ill for 11 days last January. The red-headed boy has recovered but Hurley continues to lobby for food safety.

With Jacob in tow, the Portland cop who lives in Wilsonville visited Washington, D.C., three times last year, lobbying Congress to pass tougher legislation. He returns again next Tuesday to press Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley for a floor vote.

"It's almost a done deal but we need to get it to the floor of the Senate," Hurley said. "We as Americans deserve this."

Like other victims, he, too, wants the former president of PCA prosecuted. Stewart Parnell was questioned by Congress about e-mails indicating he knew his products were contaminated but ordered them shipped anyway.

He did not speak then and has not been heard from publicly since.

The Food and Drug Administration declines to discuss the case, though a spokesman indicated Tuesday that a criminal investigation is in the works under the U.S. attorney's office in Georgia.

G.F. Peterman III, the acting U.S. attorney there, would only say that a serious investigation could take many months.

In the meantime, the payout could be headed toward victims as early as next month.

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