ROSEMONT, IL — Attorney Shawn K. Stevens could not hide his excitement as two large rooms at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center filled for a 3-hour mock trial. It was good for a round of applause from the gathering crowd looking to learn about food safety in person for the first time since before the pandemic.
Stevens and his fellow food industry lawyer Joel Chappelle crafted the mock trial and put audience members in the role of jurors. The question was whether a fictitious food company’s egg salad product was responsible for the Listeria death of an 11-year-old Chicago area girl.
The mock trial was part of the opening day of the 2022 Food Safety Summit.
The storyline for the exercise was pretty simple: The estate of Stella Davis sues Harding Foods, manufacturer of the egg salad, seeking to have the jury find the defendant’s egg salad products were the source of the Listeria monocytogenes that led to Stella’s death. If finding for her estate, the jury could award monetary damages to compensate for medical and emotional losses.
Stella Davies became sick on Dec. 24, 2020, after earlier eating Harding’s egg salad product. Her condition worsened over the next 12 days and she was culture-confirmed with an outbreak strain of Listeria monocytogenes. Stella died on Jan. 3, 2021, of sepsis.
The mock trial used video depositions to give the proceedings a life-look feel. the attorney for the plaintiff put on witness Claire Davies, Stella’s fictional mother, to explain how her death came about and its impact on the family. The defendants presented depositions from Harding’s CEO Mark Yoder, Executive Vice President Tom Reynolds, and Quality Assurance Vice President Jackie Hofstetter.
Harding was described as a medium-sized company with a variety of egg salad products distributed to grocery stores throughout the United States. It went into business in 2014 and as of 2010-2020 was taking 20 environmental samples in its plant each week.
The crafters of the mock trial left the jurors dealing with how to assess blame when the outbreak involved is a small one. Of the six outbreak cases, there was no certain source for three. Two cases, including Stella’s, were linked to egg salad. And a sixth was a frequent traveler who denied ever eating egg salad.
Each side brought in expert testimony with epidemiology credentials. For the plaintiff, a 99.999 percent match between the environmental sample and the outbreak strain was offered as almost conclusive evidence that Harding was responsible for the girl’s death. For the defense expert, it was less than a 10 percent chance because the sample was too small and variety of other factors.
In addition to egg salad, apples, deli turkey, and bagged salad were also potential sources for the small Listeria outbreak.
The fictitious evidence was enough to keep the jury’s attention to the very end.
The audience was split into jury tables with 14 tables finding the company was not at fault. Ten tables found the company guilty and 8 tables were hung juries.
Attorney Stevens is known for the “Food Recall Reporter,” a free searchable database of the FDA and USDA food recalls. His Milwakee-based Food Industry Council LLC last year launched its “FIC Recall Reporter.” The new, free business tool is a searchable database of all FDA and USDA published Class I, Class II, and Class III food and beverage recalls since 2000.
According to The Food Industry Council, its FIC Recall Reporter is the only single database in the world that contains this information. FIC Recall Reporter is updated regularly, allowing users to easily search the growing number of food recalls using a variety of user-friendly parameters.
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