Peanut poisoning lawsuit blames Kellogg Co.


Earlier this month, a Wilsonville boy put a face on the salmonella outbreak that has sickened scores nationwide.

Three-year-old Jacob Hurley sat, wearing a big-knotted tie in an angry congressional subcommittee meeting, as his father, Peter Hurley, testified about his son's illness. Jacob was sick for 11 days with severe symptoms of salmonella infection after munching on his favorite comfort food -- peanut butter crackers.

Now Peter Hurley, a Portland policeman, and Brandy Hurley, his wife, are suing the manufacturer, Kellogg Co., for unspecified damages in one of the biggest outbreaks of food poisoning in U.S. history, with at least 666 people becoming ill so far and nine deaths.

"There's no question that eating that product is what caused him to become ill," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who is representing the Hurleys.

The lawsuit, the first in Oregon in the salmonella outbreak, accuses the company of negligence, saying it failed to use ingredients that were "safe, wholesome, free of defects." It also says the company "had a duty to carefully select and monitor its suppliers" but "failed to adequately supervise them."

Kellogg, based in Michigan, said it does not comment about ongoing court cases.

Lab tests confirmed that Jacob had the same salmonella strain as in the nationwide outbreak, prompting Oregon health authorities to visit the family and test some of their leftover packages of Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

The crackers tested positive for salmonella typhimurium, said William Keene, senior epidemiologist with the state Public Health Division.

In mid-January, a few days after Jacob had recovered from days of diarrhea and vomiting, Kellogg recalled its Austin and Keebler-brand crackers made with peanut butter.

The popular snack foods were made with peanut paste from the Peanut Corp. of America, which is facing a criminal investigation.

Federal inspectors found salmonella at the company's Blakely, Ga., plant along with evidence that the company sold food even after it had tested positive for the bacteria. Besides the Austin crackers, peanut butter made from peanuts processed by Peanut Corp. have tested positive for salmonella.

The Oregon lawsuit, however, does not target Peanut Corp., which has filed for bankruptcy.

Marler said Kellogg bears responsibility, too.

"Big-name brands like Kellogg have an enormous responsibility to monitor where they're getting their product and how that product is being manufactured," he said. "The public doesn't know whether it's made in China or a rat-infested or bird-infested plant in Blakely, Georgia. They're buying a Kellogg product."

Peanut Corp. sold potentially tainted ingredients to dozens of companies, including distributors that resold to other manufacturers. The web of sales has swept up about 200 companies in the recall, one of the most extensive in U.S. history.

More than 2,200 items have been pulled, with fresh recall notices issued every day. Just this week, the Oregon Department of Agriculture entered the fray, asking food stores, manufacturers and distributors to pull food made with peanuts from Peanut Corp.'s plant in Plainview, Texas, after a Washington County boy, who ate bulk peanuts distributed by the plant, got sick.

That plant and Peanut Corp.'s facility in Georgia are closed.

Peanut Corp. faces more than a dozen lawsuits nationwide, and Kellogg is named in six suits, including the Hurley's.

Marler, an expert in food poisoning litigation, expects the Hurley case to go to a jury trial.

Although Jacob has recovered, his parents are trying to make a point, he said.

"For the Hurleys, like a lot of people who wind up litigating cases, it's less about what went on with their kid," Marler said. "It's more that they're upset with the system that would allow something like this to happen."