Meatpacker Excel must pay Sizzler $7.1 million for E. coli outbreak


Posted: July 30, 2008


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A jury Wednesday found that meatpacker Excel Corp. will have to pay Sizzler USA, a national restaurant chain, more than $7.1 million for lost revenue resulting from publicity surrounding the outbreak of a food-borne illness that killed a child and sickened scores of others at restaurants here eight years ago.

The jury award brings the cost to Excel to $18.5 million plus lawyer fees.

Ron Pezze, a lawyer representing the local restaurant franchise and its insurance company, said the jury verdict also means that Excel will have to reimburse 80% of the $3.5 million that his clients paid to victims of the outbreak years ago. The local franchise, E&B Management of Waukesha, was seeking reimbursement for all the money paid out, but the jury found the franchise to be 20% responsible for the outbreak.

Excel already had paid $8.5 million in June to the family of the child who died, according to lawyers involved in the case.

A spokesman for Excel, a subsidiary of food giant Cargill Inc., said in a written statement that the company was disappointed in the decision and was considering its options.

The lawsuit in the courtroom of Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Charles F. Kahn Jr. originated with the tragic death of Brianna Kriefall, who died at age 3 after eating watermelon tainted with the 0157:H7 strain of E. coli at the Sizzler restaurant at 789 W. Layton Ave. The trial, however, was an argument among the businesses over who should pay how much.

Excel argued that the restaurant chain and the local franchise should share in the responsibility for the outbreak, accusing the local restaurant of causing the cross-contamination of the salad bar by employing unsafe practices.

The jury was told that Excel had not admitted that its meat from its Colorado plant was the source of the deadly bacteria until just weeks before the settlement with the Kriefall family and that E&B had settled to the maximum of its insurance policy years ago.

“What took Excel so long was the fear of facing you,” Fred Gordon, a lawyer for the chain, told the jury.

Gordon and Pezze painted a bleak picture of the operation of the plant where the tainted meat was produced. They pointed to a high annual turnover in employees — 1,200 of the 2,000 — most of them immigrants; that the plant had been cited 17 times in three months for violations; and that some employees “harassed” federal inspectors by following them around.

Gordon noted that every 12 seconds an animal was killed at the plant, and that a retired federal inspector had testified that the plant could be made safe by slowing down the operation.

Gordon estimated that the legal fees for all those involved have exceeded $7 million.


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