Lawsuit Filed Over Caramel Apple Listeria-Outbreak Death

Lawsuit Filed Over Caramel Apple Listeria-Outbreak Death
Flickr/nerissa's ring

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed by the widower and sons of a California woman who died after eating a listeria-contaminated caramel apple around Halloween of last year. 

The suit seeks compensation and damages from Safeway, which sold Shirlee Frey of Felton, California, the apple; Happy Apple Co., which made the caramel apple; and Shafter, California–based Bidart Brothers, the farm that supplied the apple. The caramel apples were recalled by Happy Apple on Dec. 24, and Bidart recalled its Granny Smith and Gala apples on Jan. 6, after the listeria strain was traced back to its fruit. 

"The subject produced was adulterated, unreasonably dangerous, and not fit for human consumption," according to the lawsuit. The recalled brands ultimately included Happy Apple, Kroger, Karm'l Dapples and Merb’s Candies brand Bionic Apples and Double Dipped Apples.

A total of 35 people in 12 states were infected with a genetically identical strain of Listeria monocytogenes, including one case in California — the lawsuit case, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven people died, including Frey. On December 19, the CDC traced the outbreak to commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples. Twenty-eight of the 31 ill people interviewed by health investigators reported eating commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples before becoming ill.

Listeria is especially dangerous in the elderly, pregnant women, infants and immune-compromised people. (One of the deaths was a fetus in a pregnant woman.)

Frey, 82, began feeling dizzy and experiencing headaches about a week after eating the caramel apple, according to her attorney, Bill Marler. "She didn’t have any major health issues" previously, he says. "Like a lot of these [listeria] cases, it impacts the brain. She was having headaches and feeling dizzy. She fell, hit her head." On Nov. 6, Frey underwent successful surgery for a brain bleed and was released to a rehab center. But after 10 days her condition began to deteriorate. She was readmitted to the hospital with meningitis. "Doctors told her family on Dec. 2 that she was suffering from a listeria infection," according to the lawsuit. "She died that same day." Health investigators determined she was infected with the outbreak strain.

The CDC considers the outbreak over, and attorney Marler says he is surprised it wasn't much worse. "My guess is that not a lot of elderly people or immune-compromised people eat caramel apples, so Bidart Brothers got lucky," he says.

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