Punitive Claims Added to Peanut Butter Suit in Light of FDA Report

The law firm that filed the first lawsuit tied to the recent salmonella outbreak in certain brands of peanut butter has added claims for punitive damages in light of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent report concluding that the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly released a product that could have been contaminated (pdf).

The complaint was filed on behalf of Vermont residents Gabrielle and Daryl Meunier, whose 7-year-old son got sick last November with fever, vomiting and diarrhea. After being hospitalized, their son tested positive for contracting a strain of salmonella that is now linked to peanut butter made at the Peanut Corporation of America's Georgia plant. Meunier v. Peanut Corporation of America, No. 1:09-cv-00012 (M.D. Ga.).

The FDA report, which came out last month, found that the Georgia plant shipped products that had tested positive for salmonella contamination at least 12 times in the past two years. Federal investigators also found unsanitary conditions and numerous health violations at the plant. On Wednesday, the FDA asked companies and consumers to discard every product made from the plant in the past two years.

The plant produced peanut butter and peanut butter paste that was sold to companies that make cookies, cakes, ice cream and dog treats. Since last fall, at least 43 states have reported illnesses, and eight people have died.

Bill Marler, a partner at Marler Clark in Seattle, who filed the suit, said the recent FDA report indicates willful intent.

"Based on the fact that the plant was having pretty severe problems and was pretty clearly shipping product knowing it may likely be contaminated, it certainly, in my view, reaches to the level of a punitive claim," he said, especially if criminal charges are to be brought.

Stewart Parnell, president of Peanut Corporation of America, issued a statement last week stating that he "categorically denies any allegations that the company sought favorable results from any lab in order to ship its products."

He also said that during the recent FDA inspection of the Georgia plant, Peanut Corporation of America took corrective action. "PCA does not agree with all the observations noted, and there are some inaccuracies," he stated.