Foster Farms Salmonella Verdict Reveals Evidence Challenges

By Steven M. Sellers

Foster Poultry Farms Inc. is on the hook for $1.95 million out of a $6.5 million verdict for a brain-injured toddler, a federal jury in Arizona recently found.

The March 1 verdict shows that Foster Farms and other chicken producers can be liable for salmonella contamination even when their products bear USDA’s stamp of approval, the plaintiffs’ lawyer tells Bloomberg Law.

The verdict followed a trial in which three-year-old Noah Craten’s parents claimed that Foster Farms knew its chicken was tainted with a virulent strain of salmonella. The company counterclaimed that there was no proof the boy ever ate Foster Farms-brand chicken.

The case stems from a 29-state salmonella outbreak in 2013 that sickened 634 people in 20 states. The source of the drug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak was Foster Farms chicken, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They hammered away that this chicken had the stamp of approval from the USDA, and that it therefore couldn’t be adulterated,” the Cratens’ lawyer, Eric Hageman, of Pritzker Hagemen in Minneapolis, said March 7.

Chicken products inherently have some level of salmonella—requiring that consumers take care in its preparation—but Hageman said the evidence in the case demonstrated that Foster Farms “knew its product had a dangerous pathogen and did nothing about it.”

“The testing showed the chicken had more than 200 times more of this salmonella that found at other poultry plants,” Hageman said.

But the corresponding duties of manufacturers and consumers to ensure food safety also appear to have played a role in the verdict.

The jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona concluded that Noah’s parents were 70 percent at fault in the case, assessing 30 percent of the damages to Foster Farms—$1.95 million.

“It is important to note that family shopping records presented at the trial, covering the six month period prior to the onset of illness, failed to demonstrate the purchase of Foster Farms chicken,” Foster Farms said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg Law March 7.

Hageman said, however, that the extremely high levels of the rare Salmonella strain in the chicken fully warranted the award of damages.

“This case establishes that even when salmonella is not an adulterant per se, if a poultry processor knew its product had a dangerous pathogen and did nothing about it, it can be held liable for negligence,” Hageman said.

Pritzker Hageman represented the Cratens.

Archer Norris represented Foster Farms.

The case is Craten v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc. , D. Ariz., No. 15-cv-02587, verdict 3/1/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven M. Sellers in Washington at ssellers@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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