An Iowa egg producer at the center of last year’s nationwide outbreak of Salmonella may face punitive damages, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett said plaintiffs suing Austin J. “Jack” DeCoster have a legal basis for pursuing punitive damages if they can prove conditions at his egg facility and the record of conditions at his other farms demonstrate a “willful and wanton” pattern contributing to the contamination that sickened at least 1,939 people and led to a recall of more than 500 million eggs.

The plaintiffs allege that egg farms operated by DeCoster have repeatedly been linked to outbreaks of Salmonella illnesses since 1982.

Attorneys for DeCoster’s Quality Egg (doing business as Wright County Egg) company had argued that claims for punitive damages were improper, and should be dismissed, saying in part that the company’s past history was not relevant to the recent outbreak of illnesses.

In his ruling, Bennett wrote that “allegations that Quality Egg had frequent notice of Salmonella problems” and failed to correct them suggests the company “engaged in a ‘persistent course of conduct’ showing that it ‘acted with no care and with disregard of the consequences of those acts.’ “

The Seattle food safety law firm Marler Clark has filed several lawsuits in Iowa federal court on behalf of people who contracted Salmonella enteritidis after eating the Iowa eggs. Bill Marler, lawyer for the plaintiffs and publisher of Food Safety News, said DeCoster had $25 million in insurance, not enough to cover punitive damages.

The Food and Drug Administration, in its form 483 report, said inspections of DeCoster’s facilities between August 12 and 30, after the egg recall, found over-flowing manure piles and infestations of flies, maggots and rodents. Decoster’s son, testifying before a congressional hearing in September, said chicken feed was the most likely source of the Salmonella contamination, an assertion the FDA has disputed.

Congressional investigators presented evidence at hearings, including environmental sample reports from DeCoster’s Galt, Iowa facility from 2008 to 2010, that indicated 426 positive results for Salmonella, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella enteritidis. The testing included 66 positive samples for Salmonella on May 27, 2010 alone.