An Arizona federal court jury returned a verdict in the amount of $6.5 million in favor of a 5-and-a-half-year-old child who suffered a brain injury as a result of a Salmonella Heidelberg infection from chicken produced by Foster Poultry Farms (2:15-cv-02587-DLR). The verdict was announced on March 1. The plaintiff, Noah Craten, was represented by Eric Hageman, Brendan Flaherty, David Coyle and Kate Flom of the Minneapolis law firm Pritzker Hageman, P.A.

The case sets an important precedent for food safety; it established that chicken producers like Foster Poultry Farms can be held responsible for Salmonella contamination on raw chicken product even though the USDA does not consider Salmonella a per se “adulterant” in raw chicken and even though the bacteria can be killed by cooking the chicken.

Foster Poultry Farms argued that because Salmonella contamination is “natural” to raw chicken, it cannot form the basis of liability, regardless of the amount and type of contamination. Further, the company asserted that there was no evidence that the child ever consumed its product because the plaintiffs could not produce shopper card records, receipts, or other direct evidence that they had purchased Foster Farms chicken.

Plaintiffs introduced evidence that Foster Farms’ entire operation was infested with particularly dangerous strains of Salmonella Heidelberg, including the strain that sickened Noah Craten. The jury considered evidence of prior foodborne illness outbreaks linked to Foster Farms and epidemiological evidence that Noah Craten was part of a very large Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health departments. According to the CDC, 639 people from 29 states were sickened in the Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014.

In what is believed to be the first verdict of its kind, the jury concluded that Foster Farms was negligent in producing Salmonella Heidelberg-contaminated chicken and that, based on epidemiological and microbiological evidence alone, it caused Craten’s illness. The jury attributed 30% of the fault to Foster Farms and 70% to family members for their preparation of the chicken. The net verdict for the family was $1.95 million.

Hageman said the verdict establishes a precedent that should change the poultry industry. “Traditionally, Foster Farms and other poultry producers have argued that they are under absolutely no obligation to address even pervasive Salmonella contamination. The jury in this case said enough is enough. Clean up your act.” The jury’s verdict, Hageman said, “showed that Foster Farms cannot simply hide behind USDA ‘approval’ of its chicken” and was “a rejection of the argument that poultry companies can produce contaminated product and then blame consumers who get sick from eating it.”