Court TV 09-20-2006 (E. coli Spinach)

Court TV 09-20-2006 (E. coli Spinach)

Illinois restaurant seeks reimbursement for spinach lost to scare

By Emanuella Grinberg
Court TV

The owners of a suburban Chicago restaurant are demanding compensation from a distributor who sold them $40 of fresh spinach they had to throw away after the Food and Drug Administration announced a nationwide E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach last week.

In the first of what may be a number of similar lawsuits, the owners of Hamilton’s Restaurant sued California-based Natural Selection Foods Monday for $40 in damages associated with the loss of fresh spinach “that they could not and did not use” as a result of the E. coli outbreak.

The outbreak, which the FDA announced last Thursday, has already been attributed to 114 cases of illness and one death nationwide.

In response to the spinach scare, Natural Selection Foods, which packs brands such as Dole, Trader Joe’s and Sysco, became one of the first companies to recall all of its spinach products with expiration dates from Aug. 17 to Oct. 1.

The product liability lawsuit does not seek damages for injury or wrongdoing on the part of the defendants, but instead, merely reimbursement for the unusable greens. At least two personal injury lawsuits have also been filed in New York and California over illnesses allegedly related to the spoiled spinach.

“As a small and independent restaurant, we’re trying to sell a fresh product and we pay an extra dollar to ensure the quality of our product,” co-owner Nick Galanis told CourtTVnews.com. “Hopefully, our suit will help to make sure this kind of thing never happens again.”

Galanis said his business had not taken any hits related to the outbreak, nor had any customers reported signs of illness.

The lawyer representing the restaurant said the paltry amount of damages attached to the lawsuit made it the perfect candidate to become a class-action suit, which would enable Hamilton’s Restaurant to sue on behalf of hundreds of individuals who lost money because of the E. coli outbreak.

“You have thousands of people who are all suffering relatively small damages each, but they all lost something,” Tom Zimmerman told CourtTVnews.com. “With the class-action certification, Hamilton’s Restaurant can represent the interests of all those people.” A judge will decide in a future hearing whether the complaint merits such status.

Zimmerman said that since he filed the lawsuit in Cook County Chancery Court Monday, he had received “several” phone calls from individuals and businesses who had to throw away fresh spinach in the wake of the E. coli outbreak.

“The defendant sold tainted spinach and received money for it, so the people who purchased the defective spinach should be compensated,” Zimmerman said. “The defendant has the money to repay their customers and should repay them.”

A representative from Natural Selection Foods did not return calls for comment, but on its Web site, the company advises consumers to avoid eating its spinach products.

The company also refers to its decision to “voluntarily” recall its fresh spinach products.

“This is a proactive step, taken as a precaution, to protect the health and safety of our customers,” the Web site states. “While neither the FDA nor CDHS [California Department of Health Services] have yet determined the source of the E. coli problem, we believe that recalling all spinach product packed in our facilities is the right thing to do.”

Common symptoms associated with an E. coli infection include bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramping. As of Monday, the FDA reported that the outbreak had spread to 21 states and continued to issue advisories against buying or eating any bagged fresh spinach.

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