The three prime targets of lawsuits in the cantaloupe listeria outbreak have just $17 million in liability coverage for more than 130 illness cases that could easily cost more than $100 million, say experts in liability law.
The Denver Post reports the wide gap could make new legal targets out of grocery stores, distributors and auditing labs as victims seek richer funds for compensation, according to product-law experts.
"If they can get the deep pockets in, they’re going to get them in," said Denver lawyer Justin Prochnow.
"I think the case as a whole has the potential to make new law in Colorado," said lawyer Scott Eldredge, a malpractice and liability specialist who also teaches at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
Seattle lawyer Bill Marler said a third-party auditor that certified Jensen’s safety practices before the outbreak has also been threatened with lawsuits. PrimusLabs of California has $5 million in insurance.
Bob Stovicek, president of PrimusLabs, stands behind his company’s audit as in line with cantaloupe-industry practices.
"Primus has never been sued, nor are we aware of any third-party auditing firms being sued under similar circumstances," Stovicek said in an e-mail. "That being said this is an almost unprecedented tragedy," adding that he is aware lawyers are trying to pull auditors into cases.
With deaths and serious illnesses often producing $1 million to $3 million each in bills and other compensation, the 139 cantaloupe illnesses will produce massive claims, attorneys say.
Attorneys’ fees vary widely but generally are in the range of 15 percent to 30 percent of settlements.
In the listeria cases, attorneys may try to show retailers contributed by not demanding tougher farm audits, by failing to test for pathogens themselves, or by failing to wash the fruit one more time before sale.