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Tainted tomato case headed for mediation

Lawyers may begin trying to hammer out financial settlements in August for hundreds of people who were sickened by a batch of salmonella-tainted tomatoes last summer.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in food-related illness, said Wednesday that if a judge approves, he will begin talks with attorneys for the Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz convenience store chain and its former supplier, the now bankrupt Coronet Foods Inc. of Wheeling.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Edward Friend still must approve the mediation, but Marler said that's likely now that the framework for the talks has been laid out.

Marler represents 98 of the more than 400 people who were sickened in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and six other states after eating Roma tomatoes served at Sheetz stores last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention traced the produce to a Florida packing house where no trace of the bacteria was found.

Food inspectors also said Coronet and Sheetz did nothing wrong, but they can be held liable because they supplied and prepared the tomatoes for human consumption.

Anyone who became ill is eligible to participate in the mediation, and people who are unable to come to terms may continue to sue Coronet and Sheetz once the negotiations have ended.

Marler said claims in the current case range from $30,000 to $800,000, depending on the severity of the victims' illness, whether they were hospitalized and whether they have continuing health problems.

"I have settled several thousand salmonella claims," Marler said. "If the insurer is being reasonable and the clients are being reasonable, these cases should settle."

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