Suit filed over tainted chicken tenders

Ammonia leak: Had been served to students, teachers at Laraway school

JOLIET — The first of what could be several civil lawsuits has been filed in connection with the shipping of ammonia-tainted chicken tenders to the Laraway School District.

The chicken tenders, which were served for lunch at Laraway Elementary School, sickened 42 children and two teachers on Nov. 25. The victims suffered from nausea, vomiting or sore throats, but no one was hospitalized overnight.

Chicago attorney James Crawley on Tuesday filed a two-count complaint in Will County Circuit Court on behalf of 19 plaintiffs. Two of those plaintiffs, Courtney Corrigan and Adrian Dodson, are teachers at the school.

The lawsuit names as a defendant Gateway Cold Storage Inc., which is the St. Louis cold-storage facility that experienced an ammonia leak that tainted the chicken tenders.

It also lists Laraway School District, the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Illinois State Board of Education and a number of other corporations and government agencies as "respondents in discovery." Crawley said this will enable civil attorneys to question these entities in an effort to identify other defendants in advance of a trial.

The lawsuit alleges that Gateway distributed the contaminated chicken and failed to warn Laraway school officials of the risks of eating food that had been exposed to anhydrous ammonia.

Gateway's attorney, Ron Jenkins, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But he has stated on past occasions that Gateway representatives notified the proper state and federal health authorities about the ammonia leak when it occurred in November 2001.

Jenkins also said that Gateway played no role in the decision to ship the contaminated food. And he pointed a finger at Lanter Refrigerated Distribution Co., which is the company contracted by the Illinois State Board of Education for the storage and shipment of commodities under the federal lunch program.

Lanter also is named as a respondent in discovery, as is Tyson Foods Inc.

Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Lee Milner declined to discuss Lanter's involvement with the shipment of the contaminated chicken tenders. Milner said he cannot discuss the case because it is under review by the Will County state's attorney's office and a grand jury.

Crawley said it is possible that some of the respondents in discovery could be named as defendants. The attorney also noted that he is working with the Seattle law firm of Marler Clark, which is nationally known for representing victims of food-borne illnesses.

"The negligence of Gateway Cold Storage unnecessarily put our clients in a life-threatening situation. This company knew that food bound for children was tainted," attorney William Marler said in a prepared statement. "It is regrettable that the National School Lunch Program, which was designed to provide children a nutritious, wholesome lunch, endangered these kids' health and sent them to the emergency room."

Crawley also noted that parents have attempted to obtain a greater degree of information about the contamination from local school officials. But Laraway School Board members have declined to discuss the incident in detail because of potential litigation, he said.

"It's their children, and that's just not a good answer," he said.

Laraway officials have said that they have received no information about the contamination from state officials. They are preparing protest letters and are considering filing a lawsuit on behalf of the school district.