A district court has ruled that victims of an E. coli outbreak on a Marine Corps base have sufficiently alleged that Sodexo Management Inc. exercised a conscious disregard of risk, which is the standard for punitive damages under California law
The court in the Southern District of California was tasked to consider whether the proposed amendments have the facts that constitute a valid claim for punitive damage. In the now approved amended complaints, eight plaintiffs added claims for punitive damages for counts of strict liability and negligence. Plaintiff Vincent Grano initiated the action in the lead case and plaintiffs in all seven member cases initiated their actions Oct. 7, 2019.
The cases are related to an Oct. 2017 E. coli outbreak that swept through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and Camp Pendleton. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 62 confirmed, 62 probable and 120 suspected patients. Thirty of those patients required hospitalization and 15 developed HUS.
The plaintiffs, represented by Marler Clark LLC and co-counsel in California, suffered injuries from this 2017 E. coli outbreak at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) and Edson Range at Camp Pendleton, CA. These injuries included hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) known for causing permanent kidney injury. Several plaintiffs suffered seizures and were required to undergo total hip replacements. The plaintiffs have brought strict liability and negligence claims against Sodexo and Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. for injuries caused by this outbreak.
In the now approved amended complaints the plaintiffs added claims for punitive damages for both counts of strict liability and negligence. Plaintiff Vincent Grano initiated the action in the lead case Aug. 3, 2019, and plaintiffs in all other seven member cases initiated their actions Oct. 7, 2019.
Sodexo is a New York corporation that is responsible for providing food and facility management services for the United States Navy at both MCRD and Edson Range. Also named in the suit, is Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., which manufactures, distributes, and sells meat products to Sodexo.
The plaintiffs allege that Sodexo knew of the risk of foodborne illness and that the company has had a long-standing pattern of inaction in addressing the risk.
The lawsuit contends Sodexo employees and management officials had specific knowledge of the risks posed by undercooked beef and failed to review their meat-cooking processes over the course of a 15-17 year period leading up to the Marine Corps E.coli outbreak.
The court’s task wasn’t to award punitive damages, but rather to assess whether the proposed amended pleadings allege facts that would constitute a valid claim for punitive damages.
Richard A. Raymond, who is a medical doctor and a former Undersecretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was asked by the law firm of Marler Clark LLP to review records relevant and provide testimony to the court.
“Professionally, I have devoted a significant part of my professional career to food safety and public health. I have never seen behavior on this level in any hamburger operation, and that it involved the production of such vast quantities of hamburgers so clearly magnified all risks. Sodexo did not have any control over this operation whatsoever,” Raymond said.
Raymond said it is astonishing, disturbing, and frankly anger-provoking that Sodexo does it like this in 2017.
The plaintiffs’ state that their motion to amend is not based on a single meal. As alleged in their amended complaint, “it is almost two decades of Sodexo willfully ignoring its own institutional knowledge of the unique risks posed by ground beef and E. coli 0157 and its refusal to implement a scientifically-validated, multi-control point system up to industry standards to ensure it produced and served safe hamburgers.”
The case so far:
- Sept. 19, 2018 — Grano filed a first amended complaint.
- Oct. 22, 2019 — Grano filed a Second Amended Complaint (SAC), adding Cargill as a defendant on the basis that Cargill had sold to Sodexo the allegedly contaminated ground beef patties that give rise to plaintiffs’ claims.
- May 4, 2020 — The court granted plaintiffs’ motion to file amended complaints in all member cases in order to add US Foods as a defendant, in response to Sodexo’s decision to file third-party complaints against US Foods in the lead and member cases.
- June 5, 2020 — The court ordered that plaintiffs had until July 6, 2020 to file any motion for leave to amend and/or add claims.
- July 6, 2020 — Plaintiffs filed this instant motion.
- Aug. 18, 2020 — The court ordered the motion to grant file amended complaints.
Earlier this year, Food Safety News had the chance to interview Hunter Browning, one of the Marine recruits, who was part of the E. coli outbreak.
“There are bouts of anger, of very extreme feelings toward my situation. Because it could have been different in so many ways. If the food was cooked properly. I would be out doing my job in the Marine Corps,” Browning told FSN.
Long term, Browning will need at least one more hip replacement, and possibly two more in his lifetime. Browning still has pain when standing for too long or sitting on a hard surface. The limited leg motion has made simple tasks more difficult. Even repositioning his leg while sleeping is a challenge.
“I didn’t even get to finish boot camp, so they don’t even consider me a marine,” he said. “It’s very difficult not to have negative feelings. Given a chance, I would have worked for everything.”
Browning’s full profile can be read here.
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