Judge Upholds $16 Million Class Action in Deadly E. coli Outbreak in Edmonton
A judge has certified a $16 million class action claiming that contaminated pork sold by a central Alberta Hutterite colony led to a deadly E. coli outbreak in Edmonton four years ago.
The lawsuit seeks damages for people who have suffered harm as a result of purchasing or consuming contaminated pork products from The Meat Shop in Pine Haven, a meat processing and retail business located in the Pine Haven Hutterite colony near Wetaskiwin.
The suit, certified Friday by King’s Bench Justice James Neilson, alleges that the store and its operators — the Pine Haven Hutterite Colony and the Hutterian Brethren Church of Pine Haven — failed to prevent and contain the outbreak.
One person died and 42 others became ill in the spring 2018 outbreak. The cases were linked to pork products contaminated with O157:H7, a potent strain of E. coli.
Among those who became ill, 14 people were hospitalized and five developed hemolytic uremic syndrome – a disease that affects the kidneys and blood clotting functions.
About half of the cases involved people who had eaten at Mama Nita’s, a Filipino restaurant in southeast Edmonton that has since closed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency traced the pork products to The Meat Shop in Pine Haven.
“Defendants had a duty of care to the plaintiff and other class members to ensure that its products were safe for consumption and that ingestion of those products would not cause illness or injury,” the plaintiffs say in their statement of claim.
They demand compensation for physical injuries, mental anguish, medical expenses and lost wages. The lawsuit is also seeking refunds on behalf of consumers who purchased the recalled meat.
In total, the plaintiffs are seeking $15 million in damages and another $1 million in special damages.
The lawsuit also asks for a statement that the recalled pork sold by The Meat Shop was contaminated and that the defendants were negligent in manufacturing, processing and packaging.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
I felt like I was going to die.– Nora Romero
About 45 people are part of the lawsuit, said Edmonton attorney Rick Mallett, who represents the plaintiffs. He expects it could take up to two years before he appears in court.
Edmontonian Nora Romero, 67, is the representative plaintiff.
A day after dinner at Mama Nita’s in March 2018, Romero developed severe stomach cramps, fever and gastrointestinal distress. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with E. coli.
She spent two days in the hospital, often dependent on a morphine drip. It was the most serious stomach condition she’s ever had and the most painful experience of her life, she said.
“I don’t like to remember because it was very sad and very painful,” Romero said. “I felt like I was going to die.”
The Meat Shop in Pine Haven denies the allegations. It has filed a third party lawsuit against Mama Nita’s, alleging that the restaurant should be held liable.
An investigation by Alberta Health Services found that 22 of the lab-confirmed cases were related to the restaurant.
Researchers found that 35 of 43 people who became infected with E. coli had direct or indirect exposure to food from a facility that purchased pork from The Meat Shop.
A summary of the investigation by AHS, obtained by the plaintiffs, describes how inspectors uncovered food safety issues at Mama Nita’s and The Meat Shop.
At the restaurant, inspectors provided details of plumbing and refrigeration problems, including evidence of a mouse infestation.
In the Hutterite colony, inspectors noted three areas of concern: a lack of registration; insufficient handling of ready-to-use product; and inadequate slaughter procedures.
Ready-to-eat products were prepared with the same equipment as raw product. Procedures did not effectively minimize the risk of cross-contamination and equipment had visible residue build-up, the study found.
The Meat Shop denies that its pork was contaminated or that the plaintiffs consumed its products. It blames Mama Nita’s that they didn’t cook the pork properly to make sure it was safe for consumption.
Mama Nita’s denies all allegations and disputes her liability. In a defence, the restaurant says The Meat Shop failed to properly inspect the pork and denies the continued medical losses suffered by the plaintiffs.
Escherichia coli is a large group of bacteria commonly found in the environment, food, and gut of animals and humans. Most species are harmless. The specific strain E. coli O157:H7 is dangerous to humans and produces a potent toxin that can cause serious illness.
The main symptom of an E. coli infection is diarrhea, which can be bloody. Serious life-threatening symptoms can develop, including strokes and seizures.
Tracking the outbreak
In March 2018, cases occurred in the Edmonton area. Alberta Health Services and federal investigators began the investigation. The investigation pointed to The Meat Shop as the primary source of the outbreak.
On April 24, 2018, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued a mandatory recall that affected all pork products sold and distributed by The Meat Shop in Pine Haven between February 19 and April 24.
According to the claim statement, The Meat Shop was negligent in quality control, control and processing, storage, distribution and sale of the product that was later recalled.
The lawsuit alleges that The Meat Shop has not thoroughly tested its products, nor is it able to adequately clean equipment or properly train its staff in the safe handling of food.
It also claims that The Meat Shop didn’t immediately remember all the spoiled pork when it learned that people were getting sick.