In August 2010, Quality Egg, LLC (doing business as "Wright County Egg") and Hillandale Farms reportedly recalled 550 million eggs. Recent reports indicate that at least 1,600 people have been culture-confirmed to have suffered food poisoning from Salmonella infection and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the actual number of peopled sickened by the contaminated eggs to be 38 times the culture-confirmed number.
In September, records were presented to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that showed that Salmonella had been detected in Wright County Egg barns for years before the outbreak. Photos presented at the hearing showed barn doors pushed open by piles of manure and other unsanitary conditions such as barns with dead chickens, rodents and flies.
According to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture, Salmonella bacteria is the most frequently reported cause of foodborne illness. Salmonella bacilli can pass from the feces of people and animals and is usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. A comprehensive farm-to-table approach to food safety is required to reduce food poisoning.
One plaintiff in the lawsuit, a 30-year-old mother and wife from California, testified before the committee saying that she became critically ill after eating custard tarts at a graduation party. She also advocated for increased regulation of the egg industry.
FSIS says that when present in food, Salmonella usually does not affect the taste, smell or appearance of the food. Salmonella can lead to an infection called salmonellosis, which, according to the CDC, causes an estimated 1.4 million cases of foodborne illness and more than 500 deaths annually nationwide. Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Fever within eight to 72 hours of consumption
While symptoms frequently disappear in four to seven days, Salmonella infections can be life-threatening, especially for infants and young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, older adults and those with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease and transplant patients. Some suffer from long-term pain and irritation, known as Reiter's syndrome, which can last for years and potentially lead to chronic arthritis.
The original lawsuits filed against Quality Egg, LLC included a demand for damages for:
- Physical and mental pain and suffering, both past and future, including bodily suffering, discomfort and loss of enjoyment of life
- Medical costs and expenses to date
- Present value of reasonable medical expenses in the future
Following the hearing, the lawsuits were amended to include a claim for punitive damages.
Under Iowa law, plaintiffs may recover punitive damages in cases where the defendant acted willfully and wantonly in disregarding the rights and safety of others. The amended complaint alleges clear and convincing evidence of such behavior.
One plaintiffs' attorney said at the hearings it became clear that the DeCosters have operated with a willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the people who purchased and consumed their eggs. He added that it is no longer enough for them to pay for the medical bills of their clients and the hundreds of American consumers, but rather that they "will also have to face and pay punitive damages to the people they sickened."
Austin "Jack" DeCoster is the founder of Wright County Egg and says the situation was complicated. Orland Bethel is the president of Hillandale Farms and cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify.
The plaintiffs' attorney challenges prosecutors to bring charges against corporations that have contributed to consumer illness. He notes that in the meantime, the means to punish these "bad actors" is through the blunt instrument of civil litigation, and punitive damages in particular.
Those who have suffered foodborne illness as a result of contaminated eggs or other foods should contact a personal injury attorney to discuss their situation. An attorney may be able to demand compensation for medical bills, loss of work and, if the situation warrants it due to a willful and wanton disregard of the rights and safety of others, punitive damages.