Information brought to light during hearings before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce has led to punitive damages being added to lawsuits against Quality Egg/Wright County of Iowa.
The amended lawsuits were filed Monday by Marler Clark and Wandro, Baer, and McCarthy.
“At the hearings in Washington it became clear that the DeCoster family has operated its businesses with willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the people who purchased and consumed its products,” said food safety attorney Bill Marler in a news release. “It is no longer enough for them to pay for the medical bills they have cost our clients and hundreds of American consumers–the DeCosters will also have to face and pay punitive damages to the people they sickened.”
In August, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms together recalled 550 million eggs after health officials linked them to Salmonella that sickened more than 1,500 people. Records presented Sept. 22 at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing showed that Salmonella had been detected in Wright County Egg barns for years before the outbreak.
Photos shown at the hearing revealed filthy conditions, including barn doors pushed open by piles of manure and barns with dead chickens, rodents and flies.
Austin “Jack” DeCoster, founder of Wright County Egg, told lawmakers the situation was “complicated,” while Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms, cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify.
Plaintiff Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old mother and wife from California, told the committee how she became critically ill after eating custard tarts at a graduation party. She pleaded for more regulation of the egg industry.
Under Iowa law, Lewis is entitled to an award of punitive damages if Wright County Egg acted willfully and wantonly in disregarding the rights and safety of others.
In his Marler blog, attorney Marler has questioned when prosecutors will step up, and noted the lack of prosecutions against corporations that have made consumers ill.
“It really is left to the blunt instrument of civil litigation, and punitive damages in particular, to punish these bad actors,” he wrote.