A Texas produce company has been ordered to pay $1.1 million in damages to the family of a man who died after eating contaminated celery from a San Antonio processing plant.

Bexar County District Court Judge Barbara Nellermoe ordered Sangar Fresh Cut Produce to pay medical costs and damages to the widow and children of Hermillo Castellano, 81, who died June 15 last year in a San Antonio hospital after a 13-day struggle with Listeria monocytogenes.

Castellano was one of at least 10 Texas residents who were poisoned last year by eating chopped celery packaged by Sangar. Five of them died.

He was already hospitalized with a previous condition when he consumed the celery.  He was discharged, but three days later began experiencing severe gastrointestinal problems and was readmitted to the hospital. There he tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, which proved to be a fatal infection.

The victim’s widow, Elizabeth Castellano, filed suit. But Sangar failed to respond to the Castellano complaint, leading to this week’s default judgement by the Texas court. The judgement included $145,485 for medical expenses, $500,000 for pain and mental anguish, and $500,000 for loss of companionship.

The company did not show up in court to resist the claim. “They closed down and never reopened,” said attorney David Babcock with the Seattle foods-safety law firm Marler Clark (which publishes this site). “Corporations are funny things, and they sort of evaporated.”

Texas authorities traced the Listeria outbreak to the Sangar plant, where state and federal inspectors found contamination in multiple locations, including areas where food was processed.  Officials said DNA analysis of the outbreak strain matched samples found throughout the plant.

Sangar was ordered to stop processing food last October 20, and to recall all the products it had shipped from the San Antonio plant since the previous January.

Sangar’s chopped celery was sold primarily to restaurants, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions.

Sangar, however, protested the order, claiming the company’s private lab tests had been negative for Listeria. The company alleged that their product samples may have been  contaminated by authorities while being collected and transported.

But federal investigators revealed a host of sanitation problems at the Texas plant, from poor employee training, inadequate cleaning, inadequate handwashing, poor plumbing and much more.

A state health official reports that the plant is now operated by a different company that has cleaned it up and is following sanitary procedures.