A federal court in Maryland has allowed the personal representative of the estate of a man who died in 2011 during a nationwide Listeria outbreak linked to a Colorado cantaloupe farm to sue the company responsible for auditing the cantaloupe producer’s processing facilities, finding that it owed him a duty of care. Wells Lloyd v. Frontera Produce, Ltd., No. 13-2232 (U.S. Dist. Ct., D. Md., order entered September 24, 2014). An Oklahoma court refused to allow claims against the auditor in December 2013, finding that the plaintiff, who was sickened during the Listeria outbreak, could not show that the auditor owed him a duty under Oklahoma law. Details about that ruling appear in Issue 509 of this Update.
In contrast, the Maryland court found that the food safety auditor owed a duty to the decedent, because its allegedly negligent audit of the facility—finding that it complied with applicable standards of care for food processing—met the elements for liability under Maryland state law. According to the court, the audit was conducted “to ensure that Jensen Farms’ cantaloupe was safe for human consumption and free of dangerous contaminants, and that Jensen Farms’s [sic] facilities and procedures met applicable standards of care. It follows that a poorly conducted audit could foreseeably produce the opposite result: unsafe and contaminated cantaloupe being made available to consumers. This is what [the plaintiff ] alleges.” The court further found potential liability under the Restatement (Second) of Torts’ “Good Samaritan” doctrine.
The court rejected claims that the decedent was a third-party beneficiary under the 2011 auditing contract and that the auditor negligently hired and supervised those who actually conducted the audit. As to the latter, the court found the claim insufficiently alleged.
The court dismissed claims against the company that made and sold the equipment that Jensen Farms used to process cantaloupe, finding its contacts with the state insufficient for the court to exercise personal jurisdiction over it. Among other matters, the court ruled that the company’s website did not change this outcome, stating, “That Pepper Equipment ‘place[d] information on the Internet’ without ‘direct[ing] electronic activity into [Maryland], . . . with the manifested intent of engaging in business’ in Maryland, does not establish personal jurisdiction over Pepper Equipment.” The court further denied a request for jurisdictional discovery into the equipment company’s relationship to Maryland.