Killer cantaloupe listeria lawsuits could target grocers, change Colorado laws

At least 29 deaths and 139 illnesses have been linked to the cantaloupes so far

Liability law experts say that the three main targets of lawsuits related to the cantaloupe listeria outbreak have just $17 million in liability coverage, which could cause a substantial amount of collateral legal damage.

With 29 deaths and about 139 illnesses related to the listeria-laced cantaloupes, the significant gap between the three companies’—Jensen Farms, which produced the cantaloupes; Frontera Produce of Texas, Jensen’s distributor; and PrimusLabs, the third-party auditor that certified Jensen’s safety practices prior to the outbreak—liability insurance is close to $100 million short of the expected costs of the lawsuits.

Because of this, experts told the Denver Post that grocers, auditing labs and distributors that are connected to the sale of the fruit should expect to become targets of victims looking for greater compensation.

"If they can get the deep pockets in, they're going to get them in," Greenberg Traurig Shareholder Justin Prochnow told the Post.

The number of suits expected to come from vindication-minded consumers could even change the legal landscape in Colorado.

"I think the case as a whole has the potential to make new law in Colorado," Scott Eldredge, a malpractice and liability specialist at Burg Simpson, told the Post.

In January, a state bill was introduced to protect grocers from liability when selling products made by others. The bill was spurred on by a number of salmonella cases in 2009 after grocer Vitamin Cottage sold peanut butter made from tainted peanuts.

While the bill’s sponsors initially intended to help smaller grocers from bogus lawsuits, they eventually killed the bill when they learned how it would be a major change in state liability law.

"Any good retailer takes responsibility for what they sell and makes good on any deficiency or problem with the product," Vitamin Cottage spokesman Alan Lewis told the Post. "That's different than betting your business on every can of soup that you sell."

For more on the Post’s story, click here.

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