Settlement Serves Up $370,000 To Food Poisoning Victims
Utility company employees got sick after catered luncheon.
A dozen workers at United Illuminating Co. in New Haven received a $370,000 post-trial settlement after contracting food poisoning at a company luncheon.
Disastrous Corporate Luncheon
United Illuminating Co. decided to hold a luncheon in August 2006 in honor of two customer service representatives who had been with company for more than 25 years: Carol Jones and Delphine Blakely. Carol and Delphine, both African American, requested soul food, so the customer service employees at the United Illuminating call center on Church Street went to Sandra's Place for lunch.
Approximately 90 minutes after the luncheon, these employees became extremely ill. Workers were vomiting in the waste baskets at their desks. The entire call center had to be shut down for part of the day when 19 workers became so ill they were hospitalized. Altogether, 29 people developed food poisoning symptoms.
Ambulances were lined up outside the call center to take employees to the hospital. One of the workers who became ill was diabetic and had to stay in the hospital overnight. Some of the sick workers were taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital while others went to Hospital of Saint Raphael. The diagnosis from the doctors treating these patients was food poisoning, across the boards.
Department of Public Health Investigation
The Connecticut Department of Public Health conducted an investigation of the food poisoning incident at Sandra's Place. Eventually, the department determined that the culprit was the barbecued pork. Approximately 20 people who did not eat the pork at the luncheon did not become ill.
The investigation revealed that the food was not heated at proper temperatures. The restaurant had failed 6 out of 8 previous health inspections.
Legal Action Against Sandra's Place
Twelve of the United Illuminating Co. employees who were taken to the hospital with food poisoning elected to file a lawsuit against the restaurant, while seven other hospitalized employees declined. Plaintiffs were represented by John Naizby of Naizby Law, Anthony Bonadies, and Jonathan Spodnick. The defendant was represented by Frank J. Szilagyi of Szilagyi & Daly in Hartford.
A major obstacle faced by attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case was that state law did not allow the report on the food poisoning incident issued by the Department of Public Health to be admitted as evidence in a lawsuit against the food preparer. The law also disallowed evidence of interviews with food preparers as part of the state investigation. Connecticut is one of the few states that keep this vital information out of the hands of the people who were actually harmed.
To get around this obstacle, attorneys for the plaintiffs hired Dr. Robert Ryder as a food safety expert witness in the trial. Dr. Ryder is currently at the University of California, San Diego. He has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and been on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Dr. Ryder's expert testimony was that the United Illuminating Co. employees who attended the luncheon at Sandra's Place contracted food poisoning, and not another illness like norovirus (a contagious illness that causes nausea and vomiting and often spreads from person to person on cruise ships). As the Department of Public Health report was not allowed as evidence at trial, plaintiffs had to rule out other illnesses that commonly affect groups.
To prove their case, attorneys for the plaintiffs also had to establish how the food served at the luncheon was transferred by the caterer to the luncheon facility. This was necessary to show that the food could not have been tampered with before it was served.
Jury Award and Post-Trial Settlement
After nine days of testimony in a December trial before Judge Matthew Frechette, the jury deliberated for approximately two and a half hours and awarded $231,000 to the twelve plaintiffs in this case. The jurors also offered the possibility of punitive damages in addition to the $231,000 award, because of the restaurant's reckless disregard of the plaintiffs' safety.
Rather than having a separate hearing in front of a judge regarding punitive damages, both sides met for a settlement discussion with Judge Jonathan Silbert. The parties arrived at a post-trial settlement figure of $370,000.
Plans to Lobby for Better Laws
Attorneys for the plaintiffs plan to lobby lawmakers to change the laws that prevent Department of Public Health reports from being used as evidence in a lawsuit. Before trial, the defendant in this case offered the twelve plaintiffs a total of $30,000 to settle.
As stated by John Naizby with Naizby Law, "In Connecticut, since the insurance companies know the health reports are not admissible, they take extremely unreasonable positions on liability, knowing that the truth revealed by the health department will never see the light of day, and will never make it into court. It's also counterintuitive to protect the wrongdoers and leave the victims without redress based on old and outdated health department regulations and laws."
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