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Seattle lawyer files class action lawsuit over peanut butter illnesses

Carol M. Ostrom, Seattle Times

February 20, 2007

A Kent woman and a Bellingham man have filed a class-action lawsuit against a Nebraska-based food manufacturer on behalf of people sickened by Salmonella infections after eating peanut butter later recalled for contamination.

James Winston Daniels II of Bellingham missed several days of work after he made sandwiches using Great Value peanut butter purchased at a Wal-Mart store in Bellingham, according to the lawsuit. Linda Lee Oswald, of Kent, missed three days of work after she made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches using Peter Pan brand peanut butter.

On Feb 14, the FDA warned consumers not to eat either Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter with jars carrying the product code of 2111, manufactured at ConAgra's Georgia plant, and recalled products with that code purchased since May of 2006.

The suit, against ConAgra, Inc., was filed today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. It was filed by Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a specialist in food-safety cases who also filed suit in New York and Missouri last week against ConAgra.

Calls to ConAgra were not immediately returned.

The lawsuit estimates it may include over 3,000 potential class members. It excludes those who have been hospitalized or who died, whose cases would be handled separately, Marler said. He has been contacted by family members of four people who died after eating peanut butter, Marler added, but those cases have not been verified.

As of Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted nearly 300 people in 39 states, including four in Washington, who have been sickened since August. Not all cases have been linked to the implicated peanut butter.

Marler said he expects the number to grow much larger. "From an epidemiological point of view, this has been one of the oddest outbreaks I've seen in 14 years of doing these cases," Marler said.

Instead of happening all at one time, in specific areas, this outbreak has occurred over months, and has been spread out around the country.

Because people may buy peanut butter and keep it on the shelf for months, people are coming forward who have been sickened for months at a time, or have gone through cycles of being sick, then recovering, then re-infecting themselves by eating the contaminated peanut butter again, Marler said.

"There is an enormous miscount of the number of people sickened," he added, because most people who got sick were not tested, and were not suspicious of their peanut butter until last week.

Only those who tested positive to the implicated strain are counted by the CDC, he noted.

Marler said he plans to test about 1,500 jars of peanut butter for contamination. "Part of what we do is make sure that claims that are brought forward are legitimate and meritorious, because that helps the system move forward to correct itself," said Marler, who says he takes partial credit, through his lawsuits, for cleaning up the meat industry after outbreaks of E. coli, including one in Washington.

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