Sheetz Litigation Rears Head

Attorney preparing to file multiple suits from 2004 salmonella outbreak

Published in CSP Daily News

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- William Marler, the Seattle attorney who made a name for himself representing Jack in the Box customers exposed to the E. coli bacteria in undercooked hamburger, said he plans to file as many as 148 cases against Sheetz Inc. and now-defunct tomato supplier Coronet Foods Inc. concerning allegedly salmonella-infested tomatoes, reported The West Virginia Record.

The salmonella outbreak occurred in July 2004. Pennsylvania health officials determined early on in their investigation that there was no evidence of insufficient cooking or [image-nocss] hygiene on the part of Sheetz. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) quickly determined the source of contamination was from Roma tomatoes that Sheetz bought from Wheeling, W. Va.-based Coronet, which got them from a Florida tomato packing house.

Coronet shut down and filed for bankruptcy in November 2004.

Most of the potential cases are in Pennsylvania, where Sheetz is headquartered. But Marler said there are some in other states where the retailer operatesWest Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and Maryland. A group of four Sheetz customers has already filed a lawsuit in Tucker (W.Va.) Circuit Court, seeking a total of $70,000. The trial is set for December.

Two weeks ago, two cases also were filed in Ohio Circuit Court against Sheetz and Coronet, the report said. Michael L. Soloman of Morgantown, W.Va., law firm Soloman & Soloman is handling those cases.

The 148 cases, if filed, would not be grouped into one class-action claim, Marler told the newspaper, because each case differs from the others in the extent of any damages that might have been incurred. "Some cases will have settlements below $25,000 and will go to an arbitrator," he speculated. "A bunch of cases, probably over half of them, will be over $25,000 and frankly, in my view, have settlement or verdict ranges in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

In response to the potentially widespread legal action, Mike Cortez, vice president and general counsel for Sheetz, told CSP Daily News yesterday, We're continuing a process we started a long time ago. We're dealing with our customers that contracted salmonella as a result of the outbreak, and what we have said all along is that we're going to treat our customers right. We're going to make sure that we take care of them, take care of their medical expenses.

Highly regarded for one of the premier foodservice programs in the convenience store industry, Sheetz has been widely praised for its handling of the outbreak. Shortly after the incident occurred, the family-run chain immediately discontinued using Roma tomatoes from Coronet, and it stopped buying and processing Roma tomatoes pending its own investigation.

We just said from Day 1 that we will take care of our customers, and that means we will pay the medical costs and we will pay lost wages, Chairman Steve Sheetz told CSP Daily News shortly after the outbreak. They got tomatoes at our places, and that made them sick, so [we're] paying. We built this business on total customer focus, and whether you have one complaint or 1,000, it's no differentyou take care of people.

Shortly after the outbreak, Sheetz executives went to many of the locations and talked to customers and the media. They even ate sandwiches as a show of good faith, since the chain stopped using the contaminated tomatoes and switched to unaffected produce. The company also surveyed customers in the impacted markets. Based on the responses, Steve Sheetz said, I think people realize it wasn't out fault, and they think we've done a good job in handling it. But they're still not past the barrier of eating [at a Sheetz] again. Many of them said it will take time.

Discussing the potentially new litigation, Cortez, the company's general counsel, said, Some of the claims that were reported in the paper have already been settled. We'll continue to do that. It doesn't surprise me that to protect the rights of the customer, or for other reasons, that an attorney or a client would elect to file a lawsuit. It doesn't mean there hasn't been and that there won't be progress.

He added, We have been in discussions with Marler on an ongoing basis from nearly the beginning. He was one of the first attorneys we dealt with, and we continue to deal with him. I don't think the majority of his clients have filed lawsuits. Marler is continuing to discuss with the parties the appropriate settlement.

If for his own reasons, he needs to file lawsuits, we understandit's not going to impact our desire to continue down a path to try to make sure his clients get what they deserve and our customers are taken care of. We served a product that was contaminated. That's the bottom line. And we've always stepped up to the plate when it came to that. Was it our fault that product was contaminated. Absolutely not. But it was not our customers' fault.

Concluded Cortez, I'm convinced we'll reach a settlement that will take care of our customers and will ensure [Marler] has been able to protect their rights."